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How To Help Nursing Students With Stress

It is important for educators to know how to help nursing students manage stress. Learn ways to manage the stress cycle that can easily be incorporated into your classes.


Many nursing students struggle with stress during nursing school and beyond. Nursing schools should include ways to manage this stress as part of nursing education. However, it can be challenging to fit another topic into the schedule. Below are six easy ways to manage the stress cycle that could be learned in class or as part of a self-care routine. Suggestions are based on a recent book by Nagoski and Nagoski entitled “Burnout” (2019) and supported by emerging research into ways to manage stress.

What Is a Stress Cycle?

Stress is a normal human reaction to demands on one’s mental capacity in response to difficult situations. This stress creates a build-up of hormones such as cortisol in the body leading to exhaustion and brain fatigue. The stress cycle describes this build-up of stress and its release when an individual has completed the task or found a way to manage it. If stress is not managed, it will continue to build up in the body, leading to physical and mental health issues. 

Strategies to complete the stress cycle help bring the stress hormones down to normal levels. This can help to decrease the sense of exhaustion and that feeling of overload that often occurs at the end of the day. Stress is a total body response between the mind and the body and affects the entire person. Many of the strategies below start with calming the body, which can help calm the mind and complete the cycle.

Six Ways To Complete the Stress Cycle

  1. Belly Breathing 

This type of breathing is initiated from the diaphragm, and the more someone practices, the better they get at it. One easy pattern that works well to start is to breathe into the count of four and out to the count of six. There are multiple videos on YouTube for anyone needing help getting started.

  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This method works by having someone tighten their muscles, starting in their feet for ten seconds and then releasing for ten seconds. They then move up to their shins, thighs, belly, and shoulders and do the same thing. This process continues ending with the head and neck. 

  1. Belly Laughing

Watching a favorite cat video or doing/seeing something else that makes someone laugh releases stress. Laughter as a medical intervention is a continuing area of research with the strongest evidence of the benefits for mental health.

  1. Being Creative 

Another way to manage stress is to make music, dance, paint, use guided imagery, journal, or color. Similar to progressive muscle relaxation, this is a way to enhance relaxation. Studies are ongoing regarding its possible effects on the body.

  1. Physical Activity

Any type of movement, including taking a walk, doing yoga, lifting weights, and so on, has benefits. These benefits are well documented, but a regular exercise schedule can be difficult to maintain for nursing students.

  1. Engaging in Social Interaction

Many of us need practice at this after the isolation of the pandemic. Some good suggestions for initiating positive social exchanges are talking to a friend, chatting casually with the barista at the coffee shop, or complimenting a classmate.

Why These Strategies Are Effective

The stress cycle is about the mind-body connection. When a person is overwhelmed, their stress response is activated, as noted above. Some ways to work with your mindset can help, such as reframing thoughts. However, starting with the physical aspects of stress stimulates a relaxation response in the body. This makes it easier to calm the anxious thoughts that can interfere with test-taking, sleep, and other aspects of nursing school. When nursing students are in school, they feel so much pressure to study that they often skip their regular exercise routine and fail to permit themselves to do what they enjoy. Providing evidence of the benefits of self-care, including better retention of what they are learning, can help them rethink these strategies.

How To Make These Strategies Work

Educators can positively impact student learning by helping students learn how to complete the stress cycle. Instructors can practice with their students as part of a class session or assign it as homework by having students track their progress. For nursing students doing one or more of these six activities or something similar for 20 to 60 minutes a day can make a big difference. It is easier to spread the activities out, which can be more effective than doing it all at once. Apps downloaded to your phone can also be a helpful tool. Some are free, and others have a small monthly fee. 

If students learn these skills early, they will also be more likely to practice these strategies as they transition into practice. This gives them one more tool they can use to survive their first few years as a new nurse.

Other Helpful Resources:


Meditation Apps

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