When Physicians Suffer From PTSD

Medical Field: Trauma/Emergency.

Every human being is programmed to instantly react to terrifying or dangerous situations. Our bodies automatically respond to either protect or defend ourselves – blood pressure rises, adrenalin surges. Commonly known as “Fight-or-Flight”, this is a natural response to fear. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome is a condition in which this normal reaction has been damaged or heightened; the person suffering from PTSD lives in a constant state of fear, even when there is no imminent danger. Symptoms generally manifest in three ways;

  • Re-experiencing the events, as in nightmares or flashbacks
  • Avoidance, such as strong feelings of guilt, depression or emotional numbness
  • Being easily startled, feeling tense and angry, and experiencing insomnia

PTSD occurs after an ordeal that involved the threat of physical harm or death; the person suffering from the disorder either experienced the threat themselves, or witnessed it happening to someone else. Although PTSD is most often associated with war veterans, it can occur as a result of many types of trauma, such as a violent crime, car or plane crash, natural disaster or terrorist attack.  PTSD has no known cure, and can last for many years, even for life.

Physicians are often cited as having “burnout”, however this condition is likely more accurately diagnosed as PTSD. Like a war veteran, the doctors or nurses who work in triage and emergency room environments are a party to highly traumatic events, see innocent people severely injured and often witness death. On top of experiencing these things, they then have to inform loved ones who understandably react with raw grief, anger and pain.

Yet although society understands PTSD in war veterans, often we consider the stress a physician undergoes as “part of the job”. We expect them to be stoic and remain unaffected, even to continue on with their shift. Not to mention, there is seemingly no end in sight – hour after hour, day after day, the trauma keeps coming.

It is important for physicians and other medical workers who suffer from burnout – or PTSD – to allow themselves to acknowledge that they are suffering. Finding support from others who understand, or learning to respond appropriately in the face of fear are ways to cope with PTSD. However, a physician should also feel freedom to take leave from a career or position that is causing them harm. Identifying burnout for what it is can help to diagnose, treat and help those physicians who do so much to help others.