Some days, I wish I had an office job where I could walk into work in a cute skirt and blouse, coffee in hand, hair done, makeup on, knowing exactly when I was going to take my lunch break, when I had my first meeting of the day, and maybe even when I could pee.
That is not my job.
I typically arrive at work with a coffee that rarely gets finished until 1am, my hair half-wet, and I don’t bother wearing makeup, since I’ll probably sweat it off anyway. I don’t usually get to pee until six hours in, and well, let’s be honest, I take a nap on my lunch break, usually around 3:00 a.m.
I am an ICU nurse. I work from the time most people are finishing up dinner to the time they leave for work. And running helps me cope with the stresses of my job so much better.
My shifts are 12+ hours long, three times a week. That might not seem like a lot, but if you’ve ever stayed up all night long working, you’ll know it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sometimes it’s uneventful, but most of the time I walk away replaying all the crazy events that happened overnight; what I could have said or done differently, or why things happened the way they did.
I have placed tubes and catheters in more orifices of a person’s body than most people probably know is possible. I’ve been bitten, kicked, sworn at, and spit on. I’ve been yelled at by confused and upset family members. I’ve pleaded with a noncompliant patient as she refused care again and signed herself out of the hospital.
I’ve jumped on countless patients’ chests to start compressions; most don’t survive. I’ve held the hand of many, many dying people, some of whom have died alone. One time, I helped a dying man hold his oxygen mask while he took a bite of his favorite doughnut and sipped from a glass of wine during his last hours on earth with his family surrounding him. I’ve watched young people, far too young, be pronounced brain dead from drug overdose, and sat with their family members in silence because no one could find the words to say.
I’ve been hugged at the end of my shift by a crying, scared patient. I’ve seen doctors tell my otherwise healthy patient he has cancer and embraced him while he cried. I’ve worked with some of the most fantastic doctors, nurses and nurse’s aides who put their hearts and souls into their jobs, all of us exhausted at the end of the day. We lean on each other for constant reminders of why we do what we do.
Being in health care, I’ll always have a job, but I often wonder how long I can handle working as a nurse. How long can I deal with this roller coaster of adrenaline/stress/emotion? Every job has its stressors of course, but to have someone’s life placed in your hands while you’re thumping on their chest to keep their heart beating is a lot different than a project deadline.
Running is my biggest relief from all that stress. I ran in middle school and beyond, but these days it has become a way of life, richer and more rewarding. I crave those long runs on the weekend when I can forget about everything for a couple hours, breathe in some crisp air that doesn’t smell like a hospital, see daylight and feel those endorphins. I long for marathons, when I can smile and feel alive and like I’m a part of the world out there beyond my job. I need that crazy fast workout to go well after a bad night at work because I need to feel powerful after seeing so much that is beyond anyone’s control. I love the feeling of being physically exhausted after a good run because it means my body is as tired as my brain.
I tried being a nurse without running a few times, thinking it might help me feel less physically tired. Wrong. It may be counterintuitive, but running actually makes me more energetic and feeling more positive.
In a study I read in the NY Times, Princeton researchers took a bunch of mice and injected them with a substance that could track new cells forming in the brain. They let half of these mice run on wheels for six weeks, while the others remained sedentary in cages. They found that the running mice’s brains had a ton of new neurons that released GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) which is a chemical that keeps other neurons from firing into the hippocampus. In layman’s terms, it quieted brain activity in the emotional part of the brain.
When they put all the mice in some ice water, which obviously would make for a stressful and anxiety-ridden situation, the “running mice” initially showed a lot of excitement and anxiety, but soon calmed much more than the sedentary mice. The researchers concluded that running can, in fact, reduce stress and anxiety. In stressful situations runners think more clearly and have fewer physical repercussions.
Sometimes after work, I’ll drive down to the parkway by my hospital, change into running clothes and take off. There really is nothing as good as a quiet run after a night of chaos. My busy mind is overtaken by the sounds of birds chirping, my feet tiredly hitting the pavement, and my breath. Even if it’s only for 20 minutes, it calms me, soothes me, and makes me ready for whatever the next night has in store.
Running gave to me the ability to be a compassionate, patient nurse, who is able to keep chugging along with a smile on my face and an open heart.
How does running help you handle stress from your job or life?