Coping With Stress as a Nurse

Annette Tersigni entered nursing school at age 48. Three years later, she became a registered nurse, fulfilling a longtime dream.

But Tersigni soon realized the challenges of the job. She was constantly stressed at work, afraid to be sued for a medical error. She worked the night shift, which impacted her health.

As a nurse, you understand the hospital can be a high-stress environment. You or your colleagues likely have tended to gruesome injuries, worked long shifts and provided emotional support to individuals in crisis and their families. This can be physically and emotionally taxing on your well-being.

Overcome by stress, some nurses turn to drugs and alcohol. However, these substances can lead to problems that can jeopardize their well-being, their employer’s credibility and their patients’ health.

Substance Abuse in Nursing

A 2014 survey by Nursing Times examined the stress levels of more than 700 nurses. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they had experienced physical or mental side effects of job-related stress in the past year. Many respondents said they often work more than their scheduled hours, with 13 percent saying they often worked more than 10 hours of overtime each week.

Some nurses aim to ease their stress through the use of drugs and alcohol, which could lead to the development a substance use disorder. Addiction is a chronic brain disease characterized by compulsive activity despite knowing its consequences.

Substance use disorders can result in physical, emotional, financial and legal consequences. Nurses with addiction may compromise the safety of hospital patients. They also put the hospital at risk for lawsuits.

Nurses and other health care professionals are just as likely as the general public to battle substance abuse and addiction. But certain aspects of the hospital environment increase a nurse’s likelihood of engaging in drugs or alcohol.

These factors include:

  • Staffing shortages
  • Increased patient acuity and assignment ratios
  • Demands from administrators and physicians
  • Shift rotation
  • Long work hours

Some nurses also deal with workplace bullying and verbal abuse. This abuse increases stress and feelings of powerlessness. Nurses may also grapple with stress outside of work, which can affect their emotional psyche and lead to substance abuse.

Coping Techniques

Steps can be taken to avoid addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips for healthy ways to cope with stress. It all starts with taking care of the body: eating healthy meals, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep and taking breaks.

Sharing your problems with family, friends, colleagues, physicians or pastors can be cathartic. While drugs and alcohol may provide a brief escape, these substances create long-term problems. Substance abuse can lead to respiratory problems, musculoskeletal effects, liver damage, and infectious diseases.

Tersigni went on to launch Yoga Nursing, a stress-management program. The program incorporates deep breathing, quick stretches, meditation and relaxation techniques. She shares the benefits of these techniques for reducing stress and trains nurses to teach them to patients.

Helping a Colleague

As a nurse, you can help a colleague overcome addiction. Early recognition, reporting and intervention are critical in helping nurses defeat substance use disorders.

Identification and Reporting

Recognizing a substance use disorder in a colleague may not be easy. But signs of drug or alcohol abuse do exist. You should look for behavioral changes, including changes in appearance, frequent bathroom breaks and tardiness.

Nurse managers should address addiction issues among their nurses in a supportive manner. They should encourage open dialogue and educate staff of the dangers of substance use disorders. Addiction is a medical condition, not a personal failure.

Also, nurses who are aware of substance abuse among colleagues have a professional and ethical responsibility to report the situation to a nurse manager or the board of nursing.


Nurse managers who recognize substance abuse symptoms in a nurse should further investigate the issue, create a plan for intervention and follow state rules associated with filing complaints with the board of nursing.


Many state boards of nursing offer alternative-to-discipline programs. ADP approaches give nurses an opportunity to improve their health without fear of disciplinary action. Nurses in these programs stay accountable to themselves, the program monitor, counselors, colleagues and supervisors.

Seeking treatment is critical in overcoming a substance use disorder. Many addiction rehabilitation centers offer evidence-based treatment approaches that target your specific needs. Nurses often can return to work after successfully completing treatment.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, October 2). Coping With Stress. Retrieved from

Ford, S. (2014, December 10). Exclusive: Stress levels at work making nurses ill, finds survey. Retrieved from

Gupta, S. (2016, May 6). Why America’s Nurses Are Burning Out. Retrieved from

National Council of State Boards of Nursing. (2014, June 11). Substance Use Disorder in Nursing. Retrieved from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012, December). Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse. Retrieved from

About the Author

Matt Gonzales is a writer and researcher for He boasts several years of experience writing for a daily publication, multiple weekly journals, a quarterly magazine, and various online platforms. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communication, with a Journalism concentration, from East Carolina University.




NOTE: Although this guest article includes several hyperlinks to organizations that offer counseling and/or other services, their inclusion is for information and does not constitute an endorsement by LPN to RN Degree Online.


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