How to Deal With a Traumatic Experience As a Nurse
No matter what type of nursing you do, at one time or another in your
career, you will experience trauma. Whether it's the death of a
patient, the serious injury of a child or the loss of a co-worker. No
two experiences are quite the same, and each one feels just as hard as
Recently, a colleague and I went out to visit a nursing unit. When we
arrived, there was a candle lit in the conference room and a photo of a
man in scrubs. As we got closer to the makeshift altar, we realized — a
nurse on this unit had just died.
My colleague became very quiet, as if shutting down. I asked her what
was wrong. She started to share with me, with a shaky voice and teary
eyes, how, when she worked on her pediatric unit, a nurse had overdosed
in the supply room. As she told me the story, it was as though she was
reliving the experience all over again. This
is what secondary trauma syndrome
is all about.
And nurses deal with this all of the time.
A pediatric nurse loses a patient who has been battling a chronic
disease for months; an ER nurse witnesses the effects of domestic
violence as a battered woman comes to get her cuts and bruises treated; a
forensic nurse cares for patients who are raped and tortured.
How do we continue to care when we are constantly witnessing such unsettling experiences
? How do we show up at work day after day when we know the next patient we see could be to be worse off than the one before?
First off, let me say right up front, I am not a trauma expert — nor
am I someone to be giving out medical or psychological advice. If you
have experienced serious secondary trauma stress as a nurse, I would
encourage you to seek out support
and get professional help, when needed.
But there are plenty things that you can do on your own, which is what we will cover below.
Here are five tips to help ease the pain of traumatic experiences in nursing:
1. No matter what, you need to get up and moving.
Experiencing trauma (especially repeated trauma) can be debilitating. We
want to crawl into bed and never get out from under the covers. But
this is no way to deal with the stress. In fact, it will make it worse.
You need to get up and moving, even if that just means taking a shower
and then a walk around the neighborhood. And, if it is a sunny day,
spending a bit of time outside in nature can actually improve your mood
as you soak up the natural vitamin D.
2. On the other hand, you do need sleep.
symptoms related to post-traumatic stress happen at night. We can't fall
asleep, or if we do, we are abruptly woken up by nightmares related to
the event. If you're having trouble sleeping, you might need to get
professional help from your physician. Writing in a journal, going to a
support group of survivors to talk it out and limiting caffeine intake
close to bed can also help. The best way to get a good night’s rest is
to attempt to regulate your body's sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up
at the same time every day to get in a sleep groove.
3. Avoid negative coping strategies.
people experience difficult situations, they turn to cigarettes, food,
alcohol or drugs to cope. While these remedies may provide relief in the
short-term, they will do more harm than good over time. The trauma will
still be there, and if it's not dealt with, may never fully go away.
Placing some sort of band-aid over it, like food or alcohol, will only
mask it for a while. The stress needs to be dealt with so that it can
slowly fade away.
4. Do things that you enjoy.
The reason that a
stressful experience creates trauma is because it's something unwanted.
It's a jarring, chaotic and unpleasant experience. While the mind may
want to focus on this memory (which is totally normal), we need to busy
ourselves with positive distractions. Take a dance class. Go see a funny
movie. Enroll in an art workshop. Do things that you enjoy and surround
yourself with positive people and energy.
5. Talk about it with your team.
One mistake that
happens often in healthcare is that we brush traumatic experiences under
the rug as ‘just part of the job’. Patients come and go all the time,
so why are we having such a tough time with this particular death? Guess
what? You may not be the only nurse on your unit struggling with the
pain. Instead of acting as if the stressful situation didn't happen,
bring the nursing team together and talk about the event. The more that
these experiences can be processed, the better (and faster) the healing
Have you ever dealt with trauma as a nurse? What did you do to cope with traumatic stress in nursing? Be sure to tweet me @ElizabethScala or leave a comment below. You may just help another nurse!
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Keynote speaker and virtual conference host, Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN,
partners with hospitals, nursing schools, and nurse associations to
transform the field of nursing from the inside out. As the bestselling
author of Nursing from Within,
Elizabeth guides nurses and nursing students to a change in
perspective, helping them make the inner shift needed to better maneuver
the sometimes challenging realities of being a caregiver. Elizabeth
received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is
also a certified coach and Reiki Master Teacher. Elizabeth lives in
Maryland with her supportive husband and a playful pit bull.