Although anxiety and depression are prevalent in nurses, they often go unnoticed; many healthcare workers don’t even like to talk about mental health issues. Nurses experience clinical depression at twice the rate of the general public, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative (INQRI) reported by Minority Nurse. While 9% of the general population experiences depression, approximately 18% of nurses experience symptoms of depression. Nurses must recognize symptoms of anxiety and depression and develop strategies to prevent or reduce these conditions.

Recognize the Symptoms

The first step in combating depression and anxiety is to recognize the symptoms. While nurses are trained to recognize signs and symptoms in patients, it can look different for nurses. Because nurses deal with giving and receiving bad news frequently, such as a devastating medical diagnosis or the death of a patient, nurses may mistake signs of depression and anxiety as just a “natural part of nursing.”

Below are some examples of how nurses may experience anxiety and depression:

Condition Symptoms
Anxiety ·        Nervousness, restlessness or tension

·        Headache, nausea, upset stomach

·        Panic

·        Lack of confidence in a skill you are proficient in

·        Problems concentrating, sleeping, or eating properly

·        Feelings of worthlessness after making a mistake

Depression ·        Detachment from coworkers or family; isolation

·        Excessive sadness over a patient’s condition or death

·        Irritation or a “short fuse”

·        Feelings of helplessness or uselessness

·        A sense that life is out of control

·        Self-medication with alcohol, opiates, or other drugs

Practice Self-Care

Part of taking care of your patients is taking care of yourself. Nurses may feel selfish when practicing self-care — you may think, “I’m fine, I need to go take care of my patients! They are actually sick!” Just as you cannot burn a candle at both ends, you cannot care for patients to the best of your ability if you are exhausted and burnt out.

Self-care does not need to be a long, elaborate process. It can be as simple as sitting down to enjoy a hot cup of tea, a short walk or stretch, mindfulness exercises, writing in a journal, or practicing a skin care regimen that leaves you feeling refreshed and hydrated. Some facilities are creating programs to teach self-care to nurses, as it often does not come naturally, especially for seasoned nurses.

Create a Stress-Reduction Strategy

Be proactive and make a plan for reducing stress to keep it from growing out of control. This goes hand in hand with self-care which can include setting up a “mental health” break. You may want to schedule monthly massages or mani/pedis, yoga classes, dinner nights with friends, or even a quick weekend trip to somewhere fun.

Make sure you balance your schedule. Many nurses feel guilty if their unit is short on staff so they stay for a second shift or sign up for overtime. The danger of overextending can cause nurses to become stressed, overworked or tired, leaving them prone to make more medical errors. These feelings can also lead to burnout.

Seek Help

Help may come in the form of medication, therapy, a support group, mentorship, a workplace ally, a professional organization or further education. Each person will need something different. Perhaps you feel anxious with a certain procedure — a colleague can give you helpful tips and tricks. Maybe you struggle with work-life balance and how to switch on and off. A mentor, workplace ally or therapist might be able to provide guidance. Whatever your condition, it is important that you seek help the moment you recognize something is wrong. Be sure to contact your own healthcare provider and manager for resources.

Nursing is a high-stress job of constantly taking care of those in need whose life might depend on your care. You may feel pressure to perform at your best all the time. Combine this with a stressful, understaffed, workplace where bullying occurs and it is no wonder that nurses have a high rate of work-related anxiety and depression. Reflect on your own emotions and examine any physical symptoms you may be experiencing. Develop a plan of action to protect yourself from anxiety and depression so you can enjoy a sustainable career in nursing.

Learn more about the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s online RN to BSN program.


Minority Nurse: Depression in Nurses: The Unspoken Epidemic

ONS Voice: Practice These Five Self-Care Strategies in Less Than Five Minutes

Science Alert: There’s a Simple Writing Task You Can Do to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

MJH Life Sciences: Using the THRIVE Programs to Teach Self-Care to Oncology Nurses

AMN Healthcare: Rise in Healthcare Overtime Threatens Patient Safety and Nurse Turnover

American Mobile: Overcoming Anxiety: Tips for New Nurses Nurse Bullying: Stand Up and Speak Out