On the 10th Day of Christmas, Running Gave to Me: Relief from the Stress of Nursing

Being silly with one of my great co-workers, this was probably around 2am!

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.

Running on the parkway near the hospital, my beloved place to think and relax.
Running on the parkway near the hospital, my beloved place to think and relax.

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?

I am a full-time critical care nurse, who, in my spare time, loves to pound the pavement around the west side of Cleveland, Ohio. I am originally from Wisconsin, and ran for the University of Minnesota where I learned how to run smart, healthy, and happy. I enjoy writing about my adventures in running and what I have learned from racing. I hope to be an inspiration to other women to reach high!

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14 comments

  1. “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.”

    WOW! This really touched me. The contrast between running outside and being in a hospital is stunning. I always wondered how you could run after such long exhausting shifts, but now I have to wonder how anyone could not (not really, but more so than I did before – ha!). Thanks for sharing this and for all the good work you do!!!

    1. Thanks, Salty! Somedays are easier than others when I decide to jog after work, but most days I don’t regret it! Thanks for letting me blab on about nursing; sometimes, I think people think nurses do what they do on tv shows like Grey’s Anatomy (like makeout in the breakroom) so I loved the opportunity to give a shout out to the hard work that’s put in behind the scenes.

  2. I’m just finishing my first year of graduate school, and my stress levels have gone through the roof. Running has become ESSENTIAL for my stress management. For most of the people I know who run, as soon as things get really busy and stressful, they stop or decrease their running. I do the complete opposite and increase my running (I call it “stress running”). In order to not lose my precious daytime “brain” work hours, I wake up super early in the morning to fit in my runs. I don’t care if I run 5 miles or 2 miles, I just have to run. If I don’t run, especially during the most stressful times, my stress becomes uncontrollable.

    On another note: My mother was an ICU nurse during most of my childhood. She rarely talked about the things she witnessed at work, but there were more times than I can count where I walked in on her talking and crying with my dad about something that had happened at work. Some days she would come home from work and you could tell something just wasn’t ok. As I got older, she would share with me that she had lost a patient that day. I always felt so sad when she told me this and I never understood how she could go back day after day. How does it not seep into the other aspects of your life? I concluded that nurses must be some of the strongest people I know. I have so much respect for nurses – I can’t even put it into words.

    1. Wow, grad school, I can’t even imagine! I totally get it, though. When I work 3-4 nights in a row, if I don’t get in at least 20 minutes 2 or 3 of those days I’m working, I’m a total loon and I start getting depressed and crabby. I think it’s so important to keep yourself emotionally stable in those times of stress. 20 minutes of “me time” can make all the difference. I can also relate to what you said about your mom! How incredible, that she was a nurse in the ICU for so long. It does get to me, pretty often, having such a roller-coaster of a job. I usually have to binge-talk it out with my husband when I get home from work (or have long text conversations with my wonderful co-workers), get a run in, and a beer, and I usually feel a little better. It is emotionally draining though. I think that’s why nowadays, ICU nurses tend to just work longer shifts less often, because we truly need to repair ourselves on our days off (and sleep, really really hard). Thanks so much for your sweet response! Good luck with graduate school!

  3. I just love your writing!! My Mom was a Labor and Delivery nurse at UH downtown for 30 years. I saw first hand how emotionally and physically draining the job is. There were many a days where she worked more than a 12 hour shift because she was scrubbed in on a C-section and couldn’t leave until the baby or babies were delivered. She missed many holidays due to work as well. She was one of the best role models I have had in my life. She would work hard and then come home and work even harder as a mother to my brother and I. I am lucky to have lived under her ambition and motivation. My Dad died in the ICU unit at St. Johns Westshore. He was sick for many years and was a DNR, so his admittance was somewhat sudden, but his death was slow over the course of a few days. I will never forget the ICU nurses who helped me live and breathe through his last days that I spent there by his bedside. They were some of the most caring and compassionate people I have met. I thank you Katelyn for all that you do as a nurse. I know you work hard and the patients under your care are so very lucky to have you as their nurse.

    1. Thanks so much, Michelle! What a sad story about your dad at SJWS. I had no idea. I’m glad he got good care there 🙂 Thanks for your response and for reading!

  4. First – thank you so much for the work you do! Second – beautiful piece of writing.

    While my sometimes stressful job does not have nearly the same life and death struggles yours does, running is a key stress reliever for me as well. I love a run before I go to work, knowing that I am ready to face the day.

  5. Great, great piece. As others have said, thank you for the role you play in the ICU. I often wonder how folks in the medical field can handle the stress of literally having people’s lives in their hands, and I’m glad you found running as a way to deal with it. In my world, I get stressed by a lot too, but no lives on my hands. It can be overwhelming sometimes, the responsibilities of raising good kids, trying to get a study done so our lab succeeds, or just keeping the dang house clean enough. There are also things beyond our control, like sick family members or sadness from wars overseas, that can contribute to just plain bumming me out. Nonetheless, running has helped me become more balanced, and made me a better scientist, mother and wife. If only because it forces you to take a little “me” time, usually outside, and quiets the mind as you said. Running is totally my therapy- I’m glad it’s yours too!

  6. I love this! I found the same thing in medical school, running actually helps me to feel better and less tired than doing nothing. Doesn’t make sense, but it works! And it’s a good time to clear your head so your friends/family don’t need to hear all about your patients, work, etc.

  7. It takes a strong special kind of person to be a nurse. You are the workhorses and the angels that make stuff happen in the care of a patient. I hope running helps you to continue and not get burnt out!

  8. While I cannot relate to the high stress and demand of your job (thank you for all you do!), I can relate to needing the running to escape from it all. Working 2 jobs creates a hectic schedule, and there are days where I have both jobs and running seems like the last thing I would want to do but that is MY time that day. It’s my break in between, it’s the part of the day I’m not spending working or doing something for someone else.

    Second, I absolutely love your writing as others have said. You have a way with words!

    1. Barley, I can’t even begin to imagine balancing 2 jobs, husband, dogs, friends, pregnancy etc etc! I give you so much credit. Also, I’m honored by what you said about my writing… I totally loved and envied your writing skills from your very first post! Thank you, though 🙂

  9. Great post. And great job to you for helping so many people in an emotionally and physically draining job, and for still finding the energy to run! Glad you found a good stress relief!