10 Survival Tips for the Highly Sensitive Nurse

  1. Do you consider yourself a highly sensitive person? (HSP) Some would say that being highly sensitive can be a detriment in nursing, but I believe it's a positive. Finding ways to cope with your sensitively can transform it from a negative into a positive. If you find yourself easily overstimulated or overwhelmed at work try some of these survival tips from a highly sensitive nurse!

    10 Survival Tips for the Highly Sensitive Nurse

    My first introduction to the concept of being Highly Sensitive or HSP for short was through a blog. Reading that made me realize that I wasn't as weird and crazy as I thought and introduced me to the concept of Highly Sensitive People which has been extensively studied and written about since 1991 by Dr. Elaine Aron.

    On her website, she has a checklist of traits and behaviours that you can scroll through and check off. They range from being bothered by bright lights, being easily startled and called shy as a child, to knowing things intuitively and feeling art and music more deeply than the average person.

    A score of yes to more than 14 of these traits puts you in the highly sensitive category. In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, she points out that sensitivity, like most things, falls on a spectrum. Everybody is sensitive to a degree, but her research found that approximately 1 in 5 people falls into the category of extreme sensitivity.

    How does this affect nurses? My initial reaction to realizing I was HSP was "great, I'm obviously in the wrong profession." If there is anywhere that is overstimulating it's a hospital. Light, noise, smells, people wanting things from you every minute of every day. However, the highly intuitive, caring nature of an HSP is something that can be well suited for nursing with some extra self-care.

    SURVIVAL TIPS FOR MAXIMIZING YOUR SENSITIVITY

    Silence what you can.

    Keeping in mind regulations and the need to attend to most beeping, can you turn down the volume on your pager? What about the monitor? Our monitors default to a higher decibel than is recommended so at the beginning of my shift when I'm checking parameters I also take a minute to adjust the volume. The NICU babies and parents appreciate it too.

    Limit caffeine and eat healthy (even at work!)

    It's tempting, especially on rough shifts to run off coffee and candy but it makes a huge impact on how our bodies feel. Instead, try to stay hydrated. Keep healthy granola bars or nuts in your bag for shifts where you don't get a break and try to plan healthy meals most of the time.

    Consider Supplements.

    For me, if I'm taking a high dose of Omega 3s regularly my tolerance for irritations and stimuli goes way up. I also put Natural Calm magnesium powder in my water at work it adds flavour and calms some of those overstimulated nerve endings.

    Maximize your break time.

    I enjoy chatting on my break and in the report room. However, on days where I'm feeling overwhelmed or bombarded on the floor, the payoff is huge if I find a quiet corner to take a break by myself. My brain and body thank me when I take the time to sit outside on a nice day too. These have the added bonus of taking me away from the TV in the breakroom, usually playing the news. Hearing a tragic story I connect with on my break hour makes it especially challenging to return to my assignment and finish of a shift feeling good emotionally.

    Manage activities before your shift.

    If you work day shift to try to get enough sleep. For night or evening shifts, consider your activities during the day. Shortage of sleep and nonnegotiable duties such a parenting aren't always controllable, but I have realized that hitting up a children's play place and then going into work is just too much irritating stimulation. I've learned to keep workdays low key even if it means saying no to things I really want to do. It's just not worth it.

    Plan your drive or ride to and from work.

    I have a pre-work playlist that gets me ready for my shift or I'll listen to an upbeat podcast. On the way home I often listen to nothing or something calming. My favorite part of my shift is walking out into the fresh cold or warm sunny air. Anything that doesn't smell like the hospital. Opening the windows as I drive helps me blow away the things that happened on that shift.

    Invest in comfortable shoes and scrubs that fit.

    After three pregnancies I was wearing a mix of too small scrubs and oversized maternity. When I finally invested in comfortable pants that fit and I wasn't tugging at things through my whole shift I was amazed at how much better I felt overall. Investing in shoes is equally important. I once had a pair of shoes that squeaked when I walked and I honestly couldn't think of anything else my whole shift. Work has enough irritations without having to worry about how our clothes and shoes feel.

    Use positive taste and smell redirect your senses.

    Let's face it, nursing stinks sometimes. Even though I work in the NICU there are still a myriad of terrible scents from specialized formulas to poop that smells shockingly bad considering the small person it came from. For a person who is HSP even just the smell of an OR mask can seem overwhelming. Treating our senses to a different scent or taste can combat the memory of the bad one. I've chewed gum, added lemon or cucumber to my water, and even kept essential oils in my car and purse to smell before and after my shift, or on my break.

    Decrease clutter in your work area.

    While we have little control over the rest of the unit, taking the time at the beginning of a shift to organize supplies and paperwork and tidy up our areas can be visually appealing and calming. It has had the added bonus of not running around looking for things later in the shift.

    Lastly, make sure where you're working is a good fit for you and your personality.

    For a long time, I tried to fight my HSP tendencies. I saw them as a weakness to be eradicated. While I've learned to manage them, I've also accepted they aren't going anywhere and it was worth finding a unit where I could control my environment and choose shifts that worked best for me. It took some trial and error and patience, but it now what I considered a negative personality trait actually contributes positively to my assessment and communication skills.



    Many people feel like nursing is a bad fit for someone who is easily overwhelmed. However, many of the traits of highly sensitive people are invaluable to the nursing profession. We can sense things and often know what someone needs intuitively. Managing our sensitivities, instead of ignoring them, can lead to better job satisfaction and self-awareness.

    Would you consider yourself a highly sensitive nurse? What are some of the ways you cope with being highly sensitive at work and at home? What are some of the ways it has made you a better nurse? If you can relate to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated at work start by taking the HSP test, knowing how your mind works is the key to taking care of it.
    Last edit by Joe V on Jun 14, '18
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  2. Poll: Would you concider yourself a Highly Sensitive Nurse?

    • Definitely!

      70.45% 31
    • Maybe???

      9.09% 4
    • A litte bit.

      13.64% 6
    • Nope, not at all.

      6.82% 3
    44 Votes

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  4. by   Here.I.Stand
    Good tips! I'm HSP although didn't know there was a name for it until recently. I do some of what you suggest, and it definitely helps. I customize alarms, listen to soothing music in the car, wear comfy scrubs/shoes, that kind of thing. I do work in a high-stimuli environment (SICU), so really crave downtime when I get home...for this reason I prefer PM or noc shift. When I worked day shift, I had no chance of down time because my kids would (naturally) be excited to see me. Now I get home after they're in bed. I give my sleeping kids a kiss, snuggle up under the covers and put either a quiet show or some music on my laptop...

    Lately I've been on a nature documentary kick, and the deep sea in particular, so choose the deep-sea episode of the Planet Earth or Blue Planet series on Netflix.

    I often also work on a Shutterfly photo book -- creative but easy activity, and I get to enjoy the memories that our family pics bring.

    I love to use a high-end lotion on my feet and put on some fuzzy slippers or socks at home, too. When my feet feel good, I feel good.

    My big thing is after emotionally difficult days, I feel it physically. Sleep is a must!! And I freely ask for extra help at home with the stuff I typically take care of. My family gets it, and every bit is appreciated. I've come home and told my husband I just had a really difficult death, and can he take care of breakfast in the morning? Or that we're getting takeout instead of a home cooked meal (kids usually love that news!) That kind of thing.
  5. by   CryandNurseOn
    Quote from Here.I.Stand
    I do work in a high-stimuli environment (SICU), so really crave downtime when I get home...for this reason I prefer PM or noc shift. When I worked day shift, I had no chance of down time because my kids would (naturally) be excited to see me. Now I get home after they're in bed. I give my sleeping kids a kiss, snuggle up under the covers and put either a quiet show or some music on my laptop...
    Me too! I avoid day shifts at all cost.
  6. by   Buyer beware
    OP@CryandNurseOn, RN-I have to be honest and tell say that when I first saw this topic along with its anguished photo about the Highly Sensitve Person (HSP) personality type, I had a kindof a reactionary take on the subject matter. As in "buck up and and get
    moving" followed by "if you can't take the
    heat...." After all, why would anyone with this
    kind of intra-psychic hyperesthesia ever in
    their right mind what to be a nurse? Isn't it
    tantamount to person with a fear of snakes
    wanting to be a herpetologist?
    So to address the issue. In this field I have met personalities down through the years who were at various stages on the continuum of empathetic. Some very nice but warm and fuzzy, not so much. I believe the reason for this, and no excuses here, has to do with over coming the mental indecisiveness that has to do with keeping cognitive dissonance at bay.
    An extreme case but not too unusualoccurrance for trauma folks is having an accident victim being rushed iinto a bay followed by his tramatically amputed left foot chilled on ice in a zip lock.
    So what is the point. Simply this. We are all only human and subject to this or that revolting thing. But the necessity to be able to transcend the barriers to effective performance is essential to most areas in nursing.
  7. by   VivaLasViejas
    As a HSP, I did OK on evening and night shifts. Day shift literally made me crazy. All the phones ringing, families wanting a piece of me, med passes, admissions, surgical patients coming upstairs, new orders, bright lights, changing priorities, and other distractions eventually became too much for me and I had to give it up. But for the most part I had a great career and I was a good nurse, so being a HSP in nursing is definitely possible.
  8. by   Here.I.Stand
    Quote from Buyer beware
    the necessity to be able to transcend the barriers to effective performance is essential to most areas in nursing.
    Agreed -- and tips like what they OP described are excellent tools for transcending said barriers. For what it's worth I personally am able to perform just fine.
  9. by   quazar
    Funny they mention pre-work playlists. I have one of those. It is essential to getting me mentally prepared for my shift.
  10. by   Becca_Anne
    I'm definitely an HSP, but I believe it makes me uniquely sensitive and empathetic to my patient's needs. I work in a clinic, a lower noxious stress environment and have a job that lets me work one on one with people. I have more control over my environment than I would in the hospital. I think it can be a plus in the right setting. I make a point of unwinding with calming music on my way home, take lots of downtime at home and make sure I practice good self care.
  11. by   TX2015
    Thanks so much for a thoughtful and practical post. I am HSP and a nursing student. I was a bit worried about whether my personality would be a problem in this field. One of the beauties of nursing is the variety of roles and jobs that a nurse can perform. I wonder if there are the "best" areas for HSP nurses. I can envision that trauma, ED, etc would be most difficult. I hope to hear practical stories from others.
  12. by   CryandNurseOn
    Quote from TX2015
    Thanks so much for a thoughtful and practical post. I am HSP and a nursing student. I was a bit worried about whether my personality would be a problem in this field. One of the beauties of nursing is the variety of roles and jobs that a nurse can perform. I wonder if there are the "best" areas for HSP nurses. I can envision that trauma, ED, etc would be most difficult. I hope to hear practical stories from others.
    I wish someone would have told me about HSP in nursing school! I've worked lots of areas and loved most of them. Emerg wasn't my thing but I loved Labour and Delivery and currently NICU. I think being self-aware is the most important thing. I wanted to "prove" I could handle Emerg and stayed longer than I should have. Like you said, the beauty of nursing....if you don't like it keep looking. It's such a diverse profession.
  13. by   WanderingNurse45
    Hah! Happy to say I am not a HSP (at least not as much c",) ) Just a friendly tip to everyone who are HSP: Try to keep it to your self. I am not saying suppress it. I am saying that if you are irritated, do not go doing tantrums in the nurse station.

    Yes, ask for help if needed be but seriously, try not to be the jerk in the shift.

    How I managed not to be an HSP?
    1. Routine! Routine means planned activities for the shift but be flexible because disturbance in routine causes a person to go "off rhythm". So instead of an hourly tasklist, make your tasklist to be "activities that needs to be done in the shift".

    2. Music in my head. Yup. I play Panchabel's Canon in my head if I am trying to focus. Sometimes, I play a marching song in my head like " When Johnny comes marching home", " The battle hymn of the republic" and/or "the opening song of game of thrones".

    3. Deep breathing and Smile. As we already know, deep breathing relaxes muscles. Smile tricks your brain that you are happy and people are more receptive to a smile.

    4. Romanticize your work. Do not be melodramatic but understand the beauty of your work. In NICU-if I am going weary- I look at a picture of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus and chant: The bond must be protected. The baby must be returned to its mother. Sometimes, it helps if we forget about the paycheck and the career. Sometimes it helps when we just only think how we can help people.
  14. by   Erythropoiesis
    Quote from WanderingNurse45
    Hah! Happy to say I am not a HSP (at least not as much c",) ) Just a friendly tip to everyone who are HSP: Try to keep it to your self. I am not saying suppress it. I am saying that if you are irritated, do not go doing tantrums in the nurse station.

    Yes, ask for help if needed be but seriously, try not to be the jerk in the shift.

    How I managed not to be an HSP?
    1. Routine! Routine means planned activities for the shift but be flexible because disturbance in routine causes a person to go "off rhythm". So instead of an hourly tasklist, make your tasklist to be "activities that needs to be done in the shift".

    2. Music in my head. Yup. I play Panchabel's Canon in my head if I am trying to focus. Sometimes, I play a marching song in my head like " When Johnny comes marching home", " The battle hymn of the republic" and/or "the opening song of game of thrones".

    3. Deep breathing and Smile. As we already know, deep breathing relaxes muscles. Smile tricks your brain that you are happy and people are more receptive to a smile.

    4. Romanticize your work. Do not be melodramatic but understand the beauty of your work. In NICU-if I am going weary- I look at a picture of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus and chant: The bond must be protected. The baby must be returned to its mother. Sometimes, it helps if we forget about the paycheck and the career. Sometimes it helps when we just only think how we can help people.
    Being "highly sensitive" isn't something anyone can just turn off without medication. Its not a lifestyle choice, it's an actual condition. It's a fancy term for people who are easily overstimulated.
  15. by   sarbo1010
    omg, just reading this thing lets me know I must drive the hsp crazy. I love the floors that are noisy, too quiet makes me nuts. Clutter - I can walk through it, around it, and under it. I love chaos and can toon out any and most noises. My short contract in ED let me know that may actually be a perfect fit, if there was ever uncontrolled chaos, lots of noice and a mess - that's the ticket.

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