Burnout | Stress & Self-Care

Finding Zen in the ER: Tips for a Stressed Nurse

Guest Author: Jaime V. Pitner

October 08, 2021
stressed nurses running through ER

Zen in the ER?

You’d think that the last place for a Zen experience would be the fast-paced, high-pressure, life or limb environment of the emergency room.  

Who would have time for such a thing as meditation when there are people in need of immediate clinical care? 

A stressed nurse doesn’t have time for this, right? Not necessarily.  

Zen has become cliché for describing a spa day or vacation-like experience, however, it doesn’t always have to be! 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Zen as “a Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation,” and continues to identify it as, “a state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort.” 

The term “Zen” stems from an earlier sound alike Chinese word, “Chán,” meaning contemplation and meditation. Chán derives from the root of Indian Sanskrit meaning “to see, observe.” 

To understand Zen, you must realize that it doesn’t have to take hours or a flight to tropical waters.  

Zen can happen in a few moments of just one deep breath when you need it most. Think of it as moments of “calm attentiveness,” and as a stressed nurse, this is exactly what you need in the ER. 

Wouldn’t it be great to have a source of energy that restores you throughout each day so that you’re not drained, and that your patients and coworkers feel good just being around you? 

The ER is a stress filled environment for both staff and patients. No one goes to the ER on a whim, and even patents that seem in good spirits are experiencing stress.  

In addition to the pain or discomfort of their illness or injury, stress is brought on by the disruption in their lives of having to go to the ER, and the worry of what could be wrong. 

Elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing are all impacted and can work against treatment. Even tense muscles can worsen the experience of pain from illness and injury.  

Of course, we all know that stress is not good, but most clinicians don’t fully consider its impact and are at a loss for how to alleviate its effects for both their patients and themselves.

Tips for a Stressed Nurse: Think Z.E.N.

Whether it’s before each patient interaction or at times of clinical decision-making, think Z.E.N. 

But, what does that mean exactly? Let me explain. 



Zero-out your thoughts by taking a deep breath and relaxing your shoulders. This is not making your mind blank; it’s using calm attentiveness.  

Be an observer, not a critic in your thoughts. This will help you listen and truly understand your patient as they voice their history, concerns, and/or questions. 


Energize your mind and body.  

Imagine a universal, never-ending wave of energy filling you from head to toe that extends both around and beyond your body. Make it your intention to bring healing and comfort for yourself and the patient. 



Now, be present with what is going on around you while eliminating distractions. Focus on your surroundings, the patient, and your clinical experience to provide the best possible outcome.  


I am sure you are thinking, “Sure, this all sounds great, but how can I apply this to a clinical setting?”

Let’s get into it!

Practicing Zen in a Clinical Setting

Imagine having the ability to reduce your patient’s stress and discomfort, perhaps even in the first few moments of meeting them.

Along with all your clinical and technical expertise, you can include the calm attentiveness that comes with adopting a Zen approach in your everyday care plan. It’s liberating and satisfying to discover how these innate human skills allow you to bring upon greater healing. 

Incorporating a Zen approach in the ER requires only a few simple methods of mind-body communication. The fundamental element is to help lower the stress response by improving comfort and reducing discomfort; this all begins with the daily intentions that you set for yourself each day.  

Whether it’s a single word or phrase that brings you energy or calms you down, these internal feelings both consciously and subconsciously guide you in every interaction.  

In time, you’ll realize that your very presence brings healing to your patients, and it’s tremendously uplifting to know that you are not just a clinician, but also a healer. These are tools that all human beings possess, and when used correctly, they can have a powerful effect. 

An inspiring Zen Buddhist saying that I like to think of is:   

“It is thankful that we have bodies, for they keep us anchored in the here and now, whereas our thoughts can take us to the unreal realms of the past and the future.”  

Patients often have fears and worries of what may happen, and at times, recall previous discomforting memories. By helping them stay in in the present, and providing an outlook for greater comfort is one of your mind-body tools for healing. 

The stress response “fight or flight” is quite predictable, and also extremely common in an ER setting, so utilizing the skills you have obtained throughout your career as a nurse while also practicing forms of mind-body communication can truly create opportunities for positive outcomes.  

If you have ever said anything along the lines of  “do your best to relax, we’re going to do all we can to get you feeling better…” or “try to drop/relax your shoulders, breathe deeply and slowly…the more you relax, the better you’ll feel,” you have encouraged your patient to practice mind-body communication!

As a stressed nurse in the ER, you are more than just a set of clinical and technical skills. 

You are a caring and compassionate human being with the ability to bring healing. You may suddenly realize that you’ve been keeping these valuable skills under wraps, and not using them to their fullest potential.  

Realizing these skills not only brings balance, but makes you whole, and makes you a true healer. 

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