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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Nurses

Photo by: COD Newsroom (Flickr)

Learn to recognize the signs of PTSD so you can get help if you need it.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Nurses

We became, or want to become, nurses because we want to care for other people. Our career goal, and the joy that comes with it, is helping an ill person regain their health. Unfortunately, even the best care does not always bring about the desired results, and we lose patients. If you have become attached to that patient, which we all do because we care, the loss can be even more traumatic. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is on the rise in the health care professions, and nurses are particularly prone to this debilitating condition.


Experts agree that the primary cause of PTSD within the nursing profession is the fact that we witness trauma and death on a regular basis. Face it: One of the downsides of our profession is the suffering we see every day. Nobody wants to watch anybody else suffer, and sometimes we are helpless to alleviate a patient's suffering despite our advanced health care. When we go home after a shift, we cannot always turn that suffering and/or death off, and the more it embeds into our psyche, the more we are prone to suffer the effects of PTSD.

Resulting Effects

So what are the effects of PTSD? People who are suffering from PTSD will exhibit common symptoms of the disorder alongside some enduring effects that literally change their behavior. For example, if you are suffering from PTSD, you might notice that you have become emotionally numb and detached. You might also be feeling a debilitating sense of guilt or depression that you couldn't save a patient. You might find yourself unable to go into work because it reminds you of a traumatic experience. You might also be suffering effects that mirror chronic depression, such as losing interest in activities that you normally find pleasurable.

Additional Symptoms of PTSD

In addition to the effects I listed above, you should also look out for other symptoms indicative of experiencing PTSD. The symptoms include memory lapses, particularly an inability to remember a stressful situation that might have triggered the PTSD; flashbacks forcing you relive losing your patient or another traumatic situation repeatedly; dreams about the trauma, other bad dreams, or experiencing frightening thoughts while you're awake. In addition to these symptoms, if you are finding yourself unusually on edge or easily startled, or you are throwing angry tantrums that aren't normal for your personality, you might be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.


So what can you do if you believe you are suffering from PTSD? The first thing is to enlist professional help to obtain the proper diagnosis. Once your mental health professional has properly diagnosed that you are, indeed, suffering from PTSD, you can begin a treatment regimen to help you cope. Treating PTSD is much like treating other mental health disorders and includes a multi-pronged approach to helping you feel better. Included in this approach is therapy and, if necessary, medication.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, known as CBT, is employed to help nurses and all others suffering from PTSD. Included in the CBT are exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, and stress inoculation training. For intense PTSD cases, the antidepressants Paxil or Zoloft might be added to the patient's recovery plan. In severe cases of PTSD, sleep and anti-psychotic medications might also be employed, but I sincerely hope that you are not suffering from PTSD to that extent.

Final Considerations

Perhaps the most frightening thing about PTSD in our vocation is that many times you might not even realize you're experiencing it. It's actually quite easy to understand how we will immediately see someone else suffering from severe stress but fail to recognize it in ourselves. From the minute you begin your shift, you're on a dead run, especially if you're a trauma or critical care nurse. Our job is one of the most stressful careers a person can have; we accepted that fact when we graduated from nursing school.

Because of this, we experience a higher than normal level of stress in our everyday work lives. You might be chalking up the symptoms of PTSD to an unusually busy day filled with extremely difficult cases. You might also blame nursing fatigue, a well-known issue within our industry. I want to caution you, however, not to attribute any of the symptoms I've listed in this blog post to the "nature of the beast" or "just a bad day." If you suspect that you or a colleague is suffering from PTSD, get help immediately. After all, you cannot help your patients effectively if you are compromised yourself.

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