Can stress be a good thing? Can it heighten experience, help bring individual creativity to our work? “Stress illuminates our values,” says Dr. Larina Kase psychologist and author. “If we didn’t care about something, we wouldn’t worry about it.” And Daniela Kaufer, doctor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley states: ”You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not. Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.” These researchers provide a logical explanation as to why the most stressful job I ever had—was also the best. You might feel the same way.
My Work In Labor and Delivery
In my forties I became an RN. My first position was in labor and delivery in a tertiary care hospital in downtown Chicago. I worked with the experts, true nursing professionals who could insert an IV on a writhing woman, access fetal health in minutes, and if no doctor showed, deliver the baby calmly and always safely. We are talking stress.
L&D can be like the ER—a place I did not want to work. They are similar because of pace. Women can arrive on the unit pushing or near to delivery. Prioritizing is a needed skill—you get vitals, fetal heart tones, blood draws, start an IV—if there’s time. (And this doesn’t even begin to address what you need to do if there are medical complications.) But if the baby is crowning, it’s all about preparing for the birth. There might be another nurse to help with those less immediate needs, but there might not be. And when the baby arrives, though you might be racing to complete everything after that, great satisfaction fills you. It’s that optimal alertness, that cognitive performance that Dr. Kaufer refers to.
Studies About Bursts of Stress
Kaufer and her associate Elizabeth Kirby found in their studies with rats, that brief stressful events caused stem cells in the rats’ brains to proliferate into new nerve cells that, when mature two weeks later, improved mental performance. They concluded: acute stress – short-lived, not chronic – primes the brain for improved performance. “I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert,” Dr. Kaufer states. That would certainly apply to nursing skills in L&D.
So Why Did I Add Skills to My Already Stressful Position?
L&D required that I be alert, use my mental and technical skills. Clientele were often teens delivering a first or even a second child. They needed medical care but also a lot of teaching, encouragement and support. It’s hard to deliver a baby if the mother can’t focus on the work required. After delivery, if I had any time, I quietly encouraged these clients to focus on their child and postpone future pregnancies. I presented the wisdom of finishing high school, providing a better future for themselves and their child. Often, I GOT NOWHERE. I even joined a not-for-profit organization called Rising Star so that I could meet with groups of pregnant teens. We discussed everything, focussing on nutrition and how to have a positive pregnancy, deliver a healthy baby. And we toured the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NIC-U) so they would be aware of the additional stress a sick baby and all that entails can bring to their lives.
Decompressing After a Stressful Night
I worked the 3-11 shift. Some nights racing along the Dan Ryan Expressway to home, I could do nothing but go over my charting–did I remember to do this? Did I remember to do that? Once off that roadway, I often pulled out my phone and called the unit to check with the night staff. Then, when I finally got into bed, I could feel my body vibrating, like a string on an instrument that refuses to settle.
But I was fortunate to work part time. Yes, there were Monday mornings after a working weekend when I could hardly get out of bed. But days off gave me time to care for my family, plan babysitting and meals and spend more time with my daughter and son–one in high school and one in grade school. I wanted to “have it all” — family, home, amazing career. And I did. But I also learned about the stress of it all. The glamour of working and parenting–well, it isn’t always that glamourous.
So How Much Stress Is Too Much?
Dr. Kaufer: “I think the ultimate message is an optimistic one. Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.” Paul J. Rosch MD, president of the American Institute of Stress compares stress to the tension in a violin string. “Not enough produces a dull, raspy noise and too much results in an annoying shrill or snaps the string. However, just the right amount of stress creates pleasing sounds.”
Being addicted to stress isn’t good for overall health, but used correctly, it can help you achieve a goal—as long as you train your body to relax in the achievement of that goal and give yourself some downtime. “Stress is a burst of energy,” says psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Tan of Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “It’s our body telling us what we need to do.”
So Do You Love a Job With Stress?
You probably do if it encompasses moderate amounts of stress, that sudden burst described above. You get the cascade of hormones that helps your mind and body rise to the occasion, perform the needed task efficiently. And your brain remembers. During this stress you are emotionally challenged, but you are also mostly in control–and when it’s over, you have a sense of accomplishment. Some experts even say that this kind of stress improves heart function and makes the body resistant to infection. And of course it stimulates us–in a good way, not like a street drug. “Focus the energy like a laser beam on what you need to do,” says Dr. Tan. “Very successful people, rather than feeling disempowered, take the extra stress energy … and make it into a high-energy, positive situation.” I think that’s why many ER doctors and nurses, firefighters and other people employed in stressful jobs stay healthy and love the work they do.
Constant exposure from stress hormones, the fight or flight response, can cause high blood pressure, depression, mental fogginess, frequent colds, autoimmune diseases like arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. It’s necessary to be aware of stressful periods and to learn from them. What are your symptoms, your stress telling you?
Dr. Kase reminds us of the importance of balance in life: “Research shows that we tend to be happiest when we go with our gut. It’s hard to hear your intuition when you’re in a cycle of worry and stress, so give yourself a break—take a long walk, get a good night’s sleep or go out for a bite to eat.” Great advice. And though your job might have periods of total stress, you handle them, you learn from them, you love your job–it’s the best.
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