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AORN Blog - The Periop Life

One Quick Way to Slow Your Stress Response

Woman in relaxing pose.
December 19, 2021


Are you finding it difficult to dial back your stress response from the height of COVID-19? You aren’t alone.

The pandemic elevated stress to a new level for perioperative nurses caring for patients in an unstable environment where surgery schedules have swung from stopping all electives to daily overtime and back again.

Watching this “new normal” – combined with staffing shortages, a rise in bullying, and worries about available resources – it’s no wonder we hear nurses say they’re angry, frustrated or even at a breaking point with their jobs.

Rebecca Lessinger, MSN, RN, CNOR, decided to do something about it.

As division specialty educator for surgical services with HCA Healthcare, Lessinger studied the physical responses to stress as part of a comprehensive education program on self-care that is now provided throughout the HCA healthcare system.

“We need to create a culture of well-being to prevent this enormous toll of physical and psychological harm to our healthcare workers,” she says, and it begins with the basics of how our bodies physically react to stress.

Feeling “Fight or Flight”?

“When our bodies respond to stress, we face psychological consequences, but we also experience a physical response – commonly known as the “fight or flight” reaction, Lessinger explains. This reaction causes an increase of cortisol levels which leads to a cascade effect that interferes with learning and memory, decreases immune function, and increases cholesterol levels.

Lessinger knows that nurses are constantly dealing with anxiety, “Nurses power through symptoms of stress every day, and more than likely, several times per day.”

Slow Your Stress Response

To be mindful of the stressor response so you can be empowered to slow it down, she suggests one important action: 

Check your breathing.

A change in how you breathe is the first sign of stress response. To test if it’s happening, put your hand on your chest and your hand on your stomach and take a deep breath—you should feel more movement in your stomach. 

If you feel more movement in your chest, your body is responding to stress. But you can make a mindful choice to calm this reaction. Here’s how …

Take a mindful deep breath in and then exhale twice as long as the inhale. Try to keep breathing like this for at least one minute.

Studies have shown that this mindful breathing slows down the sympathetic nervous system, reduces rapid breathing, and decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension to bring physical response back into balance. 

“If we see this heaving chest as a first sign of stress in a coworker or patient, we can help calm the situation and use our knowledge of the flight-or-fight response to help deescalate the situation,” she adds.

Lessinger is looking forward to presenting at AORN Global Surgical Conference & Expo 2022 in March to share more from her comprehensive education program on self-care.

Register now to attend her session “Self-Care and Burnout Prevention.”

You can also listen to AORN’s Fireside Chat on Rediscovering Compassion to hear AORN leaders and nationally recognized nursing coach Dr. Phyllis Quinlan discuss the steps nurses can take to get back to a place of compassion for themselves and their patients.

AORN Global Surgical Conference & Expo. March 19-23, 2022 - New Orleans, LA. Register Now