Nurses are heroes within the healthcare sector, often caring for those in need in the face of immense adversity. To that end, many nurses experience traumatizing events that can have a psychological cost, including PTSD, as well as other medical concerns like anxiety, depression, and burnout syndrome.

In fact, PTSD is increasingly common in nurses, especially for an ICU nurse, military nurse, and a progressive care unit nurse. A study found that 22% of nurses experience symptoms of PTSD, and nearly 18% of nurses are clinically diagnosed with the disorder. Of those who met diagnostic criteria for PTSD, 98% were positive for burnout syndrome, which is characterized by chronic workplace 1 nurse stress. 

As such, it’s important to recognize the signs of post traumatic stress disorder in nurses and learn how to mitigate its effects on day-to-day responsibilities. 

What is PTSD 

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder characterized by negative changes in cognition, mood, and/or behavior resulting from a traumatic event. A traumatic event is typically characterized as life-threatening or life-ending. Some common examples include:

  • Combat, war, or terror attack
  • Sexual violence 
  • Natural disaster
  • Serious injury

A person does not have to experience the event firsthand. Rather, hearing about a life-threatening event, especially from a loved one or someone close, can cause trauma.

Why Are Nurses Experiencing PTSD?

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), posttraumatic stress disorder is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the United States.2 However, the nursing workforce is increasingly susceptible. 

An article in the New York Times reported that as many as 28% of military and civilian nurses experience PTSD at some point in their careers when:3 

  • Caring for severe wounds on a regular basis
  • Witnessing death and having end-of-life conversations
  • Offering continual support to individuals and their families 
  • Experiencing verbal or physical abuse from distraught or unstable patients
  • Being constantly exposed to germs and contagious illnesses

Additionally, while anyone can get PTSD, women are twice as likely as men to develop the disorder. A 2019 American Community Survey estimated that while there are roughly 300,000 male registered general nurses, female general nurses far surpass that number at just over 2 million, which may point to the prevalence of PTSD within the nursing profession.4

However, there are many other factors that play a role in the development and diagnosis of PTSD, including:

  • Biological traits such as genetics
  • Past experiences such as childhood trauma
  • Pre-existing conditions such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse

Identifying the Symptoms of PTSD

Trauma is an inevitable and often consistent part of nursing. While frontline healthcare workers like nurses are known for their strength and resilience, continual exposure can have a lasting impact on their health and happiness. 

If you or someone you know believes that they may be experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it’s important to seek a mental health professional as soon as possible. While nurses care for their patients, it’s important that they care for themselves, too. 

Those who have PTSD may experience the following:

  • Reliving the event – If you have PTSD due to a traumatic event, it’s very common to relive the traumatic experience through intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks. Oftentimes, these reexperiences are triggered by a sound, sight, or smell. Nurses experiencing PTSD must develop coping mechanisms to mitigate the effect of these triggers, especially if the event was experienced within the workplace.
  • Fear and avoidance – Those who experience a traumatic event will notice a change in their mood and disposition. Oftentimes, nurses who experience PTSD will become fearful or avoidant of certain situations or patients. 
  • Dissociation and depersonalization – Estrangement, detachment, and emotional distance are common when experiencing PTSD. Oftentimes, this feels as though you’re floating in a dream, with no connection to the real world. Feeling this detached can also affect personal relationships, as it’s difficult to feel connected to others when in this state of mind.
  • Hyperarousal – People with PTSD may feel unreasonably alert, threatened, or on edge. This can affect one’s ability to sleep, concentrate, and react to everyday stimuli. Additionally, hyper-alertness can raise an individual’s heart rate and blood pressure, as well as cause muscle tension, joint and back pain, headaches, and nausea. 

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What is Burnout Syndrome?

PTSD symptoms in nurses are also often accompanied by burnout syndrome. Burnout syndrome is generally characterized by workplace-related feelings of cynicism and personal failure, including:5 

  • Emotional fatigue or exhaustion
  • A lack of fulfillment or feeling incompetent at one’s work
  • A diminished sense of care for the work one does
  • Negative feelings about one’s workplace or even the job itself

Living with PTSD

If left untreated, PTSD may worsen over time. However, there are ample resources available to nurses who wish to find a healthy and sustainable recovery plan. In general, nurses who experience PTSD should:

  • Reach out to others – If you think you have PTSD, reach out for help. Some hospitals, like Rutgers Health/RWJ Barnabas Health, have implemented initiatives that encourage hospital staff to check in with their and their colleagues’ mental health daily.6 If your facility does not have a similar program, speak to a psychiatrist, therapist, or clinical social worker to discuss what you’ve experienced. You can also reach out to a trusted friend or advisor to share your feelings or plan your next steps.  
  • Don’t blame yourself – Many people who experience PTSD blame themselves for what they experienced and how they’re feeling. However, self-blame can negatively affect your emotions and behaviors. Reach out to a therapist who can help you navigate your thoughts and feelings. 
  • Abstain from alcohol and drugs – Substance abuse is not a long-term solution and can worsen the symptoms of PTSD, such as dissociation and depersonalization.7 As such, it’s best to steer clear of any substances that may hinder your recovery.
  • Identify and share triggers – Triggers are profuse within nursing workplaces. As such, it’s important to take time for yourself to identify possible triggers that may arise during your workday and potential coping strategies to mitigate negative feelings or behaviors when they do—and always remember to breathe deeply. Also, notify your supervisor and colleagues of these triggers so they can help to make your environment feel safe. 
  • Give yourself time – When you’re not saving the world, make sure to take care of yourself. The recovery process is a journey. There will be ups and downs along the way, but patience and self-compassion are incredibly important within your healing process. 

Find Supportive Community with Host Healthcare

As a nurse, the ability to push through adversity is an asset. However, when it comes to your own mental health, it’s important to slow down and give yourself the care you deserve. 

If you’re looking for a change of pace, apply to become a travel nurse with Host Healthcare. Once you’re accepted, we’ll match you with a recruiter who can find a workplace that checks all your boxes, and then some. 

When it comes to your mental health and your career, don’t make any sacrifices. Go the distance with Host Healthcare

Sources: 

  1. Mealer, Meredith. “The prevalence and impact of post traumatic stress disorder and burnout syndrome in nurses.” National Library of Medicine, August 11, 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2919801/
  2. “For Nurses, Trauma Can Come With the Job.” The New York Times, May 7, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/07/well/live/for-nurses-trauma-can-come-with-the-job.html
  3. United States Census. Certified Nurses Day: March 19, 2021. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/stories/certified-nurses-day.html
  4. Vo, Timothea. “A Practical Guide for Frontline Workers During COVID-19: Kolcaba’s Comfort Theory.” Journal of Patient Experience, October 22, 2020. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2374373520968392
  5. “I Can’t Turn My Brain Off’: PTSD and Burnout Threaten Medical Workers.” The New York Times, May 16, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/16/health/coronavirus-ptsd-medical-workers.htm
  6. Barker, Joanne. “Nurses, COVID-19, and PTSD: When it hurts to care.” Boston Children’s Hospital, July 24, 2020. https://answers.childrenshospital.org/nurses-ptsd/
  7. Sanchez, M. “PTSD in Tx ICU Nurses.” The Journal of Heart and Lung Transplantation. https://www.jhltonline.org/article/S1053-2498(19)30218-9/fulltext#relatedArticles
  8. Schuster, Michelle. “Post-traumatic stress disorder in nurses: An integrative review.” National Library of Medicine, May 5, 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32372541/
  9. “What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?” American Psychiatric Association, August 2020. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd