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NURSE-ing Your Brain to Protect it From Stress

As the new semester begins, there is much excitement and anticipation—and often much stress.
Alison Sutton-Ryan

As the new semester begins, there is much excitement and anticipation—and often much stress. School can bring many additional responsibilities and it can seem that our own care is last on the list.

In my role as a psychotherapist, I frequently participate in discussions regarding self-care. This is often met with a “I know, I know. I should ….” We so often have the knowledge but may have a disconnect putting it into practice.

If we experienced distressing heart symptoms and our cardiologist devised a treatment plan that included exercise and nutrition, we most likely would take that recommendation seriously. Yet, when it comes to our brain, we frequently state “when I get to it” or “if I have time” or “I know but…” If we devote time and energy to taking care of our most vital organ (our brain), we can better protect ourselves from the negative mood symptoms created by stress.

Person watching sunset

In the book Women’s Moods (1999, New York; Harper Collins), Deborah Sichel and Jeanne W. Driscoll identify a self-care plan that addresses research-based methods for taking care of our brain. Although this plan was developed for women, it easily can be translated to all gender experiences. This is a plan to provide protection and resilience from stress. In the chapter “Have you taken care of your brain today?” Sichel and Driscoll outline a plan to reduce the stress load on your brain: NURSE.

People biking on a road.This is how I have adapted this approach in my work as a psychotherapist:

  • N: Nourishment and Needs
    • Develop obtainable and achievable goals. Think about how much caffeine and sugar you consume and how late you have that extra cup of coffee! Consider the overall impact of alcohol use on your functioning. Identify convenient protein sources.
  • U: Understanding
    • Find people with whom—and places where—you can share your experience and feel heard.
  • R: Rest and Relaxation
    • The science is clear: We need adequate sleep to function well. Schedule and prioritize sleep! Find moments and places to relax. Maybe a garden or just stop to look at the mountains around us.
  • S: Spirituality
    •  What brings you joy? Peace? What, where and who creates a sense of meaning for you? For some it is nature, or music, or art. Mindfulness helps us focus on the moment of “now.”
  • E: Exercise
    • Numerous empirical studies show that exercise changes the make-up of our brain. We don’t need to be the next fitness guru. Find movements you enjoy. Walk, hike, yoga, dance, play.

Important points in developing your own unique self-care plan:

  • Progress not perfection is the key. No one does this perfectly. Some weeks are easier than others!
  • Experimentation is essential. Try different exercise activities. Find new foods that you enjoy.
  • Allow for change. What works one semester, may be different the next.
  • Have fun! Notice what you enjoy and go with that!
  • Put it in your calendar. Schedule time to exercise, for friends, time alone, for sleep and make a calendar appointment. Keep it just as you would for a class or work commitment.
  • Share with others. Notice when you feel to be your truest self.
  • Smile and laugh

About the Author

Alison Sutton-Ryan LCSW, LISAC is a Mental Health Counselor for University of Arizona Health Sciences in the Program for Mental Health Wellness of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. She provides free and confidential brief counseling, consultation, assessment and referrals for health sciences students as well as workshops, trainings and class presentations on mental health. Alison has worked as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist for over twenty years with special focus on anxiety and depression, perinatal mood disorders and addictions. She is also an adjunct instructor. She is passionate about mental health wellness and recovery and excited to bring new initiatives to UAHS.

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