PTSD and critical care nurses


Guest contributor Meredith Mealer, PhD, RN, studies the effects of PTSD on nurses.

PTSD is a disorder that is precipitated by an exposure to a direct or indirect traumatic event that is responded to with fear and is manifested by symptoms of re-experiencing the event, avoidance of reminders of the event and hyperarousal.

Nurses who work in the ICU environment are commonly exposed to indirect traumatic events.  The prevalence of PTSD in critical care nurses is quite high with reported rates of 22-29 percent. Work-related events in the ICU that have been identified as indirect traumatic events and trigger symptoms of PTSD include performing CPR on patients, end of life issues, traumatic open wounds, massive bleeding and post-mortem care.

Repeated exposure to traumatic events in the work environment and the development of PTSD may have long-term consequences such as difficulty in relationships with friends and family, general satisfaction with life, and difficulty functioning in the work environment. 

Organizational interventions should be aimed at sustaining a healthy work environment. The American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) has identified six standards to establish and sustain a healthy work environment. Those standards include having skilled communication, collaboration, effective decision-making, appropriate staffing, meaningful recognition and authentic leadership.

Action Steps

1. Develop strategies to manage stressors that contribute to symptoms of PTSD.

2. Engage the support of management, co-workers and friends that may help you cope with stress at work and symptoms of PTSD.

3. Take breaks from work. Go outside for a walk or fresh air. Exercise in known to enhance your physical state and mood.

4. Understand what you enjoy about work and focus on your interests and passions.

5. Practice techniques such as reframing and optimism when dealing with stressful work experiences.

6. Talk to your primary care doctor or another health care professional about support for psychological distress. You can also get general information about mental health treatment services in your area by calling the SAMHSA treatment referral helpline at 1-877-726-4727.

Guest Contributor:  Meredith Mealer, PhD, RN, Assistant Professor, CU School of Medicine

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