Not everyday is a good day.
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 another.
When I was a brand new nurse and working on an Oncology Unit, we had two very young patients in our care. Their cancers were aggressive and every time they came in for treatment they just seemed to get sicker and sicker. We were a young group of nurses, all of us having babies or newly married. It was really hard on us to see these two young adults struggling with such a horrible disease. Within a month of each other, they passed. It rocked our unit to the core but thankfully the hospital offered us grief counseling and we all made it through. On to celebrate the bringing in of new life with a couple of us that were pregnant.
As nurses we deal with this sort of thing 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. Or dust off that workout you’ve had on the shelf, go for a bike ride, or just DANCE!
2. On the other hand, you do need sleep.
Lots of 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. Shut down all electronics, invest in some good essential oils like Lavender and Frankincense or have a cup of camomile tea before bed.
3. Avoid negative coping strategies.
Sometimes when 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. Plant some flowers in a pretty pot on your porch. Go to a pond and feed the ducks. 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 can occur.
Have you ever dealt with trauma as a nurse? What did you do to cope with traumatic stress in nursing? Be sure to leave a comment below. You may just help another nurse!