News | Published January 11, 2013 | Written by Julie Mayhew, RN

Tips from an emergency department nurse about staying cool under pressure

The recent media stories, both national and local, about various attacks and shootings, remind us that anyone could suddenly become part of a chaotic and life threatening scenario. Though it’s not something we want to dwell upon, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

In many ways, the characteristics and qualities that are needed to be an effective emergency department (ED) nurse can be applied to anyone who finds him or herself in a very serious and dangerous situation.

Life presents many opportunities for people to respond either with hope and help, or with despair and inertia. Here are a few pointers from the ED for your consideration:

  • Stay calm. Kerry Whitlock, DO, internal medicine, Mount Nittany Physician Group, has written a book on this subject. In Code Calm*, co-authored with Michael J. Askin, PhD, and released this fall, a study by Honig and Sultan is quoted that defines stress survival skills as: “Controlled breathing, positive self-talk, visualization or mental rehearsal trained to a level of confidence and competence. (These skills) may be critical to both improved performance and outcomes.” Anyone can practice these skills and they will always be useful.
    *See the story about Code Calm in this edition of Life & Health.
  • You have to be part of the unknown. This means that you may not have all the answers. You may not know exactly what to do, but you hang in there, with your colleagues, until you can get a “handhold.” Once you can grab on, you keep climbing. 
  • Always be aware of your surroundings. Look around. Who is there to help? What is needed? What is missing? What is my exit strategy if needed?
  • Use your senses. Keep alert. What information are you receiving by listening, seeing, touching?
  • Focus. Don’t be distracted by sounds, or voices, or expressions of pain and fear.
  • Be there for the family. It’s important to hold it together for them, and to comfort them. It’s important to be present. 

Julie Mayhew, RN is an ED nurse at Mount Nittany Medical Center. With the new emergency department facility at Mount Nittany Medical Center, there are many opportunities for experienced ED nurses who have an interest and a calling for this work. To apply or learn more, please visit