Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Among Healthcare Workers
Healthcare workers in a pandemic face long working hours, psychological distress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma, physical and psychological violence. Together, these experiences make post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a well-established risk among healthcare workers.
Employers are scrambling to answer a question central to everyone’s recovery: how best to heal our healers?
PTSD and Its Precursors
PTSD develops after experiencing a traumatic event firsthand, like an accident, abuse or natural disaster, or witnessing another’s trauma. Most exposed to trauma will experience heightened stress responses and recover.
If symptoms persist for months and begin to interfere with work and relationships, a diagnosis of PTSD is made. The symptoms include flashbacks and nightmares, feeling tense or "on edge", negative thoughts and avoidance of anything that could be a painful reminder of the trauma.
The pandemic has all the necessary ingredients that make caregivers especially vulnerable to developing PTSD. Even before the pandemic, half of doctors and one-third of nurses reported experiencing burnout, marked by exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of ineffectiveness.
Psychological First Aid for the Frontline
Prior efforts have been made to address the psychological burdens of the healthcare workforce, which have been especially critical during the pandemic.
For those suffering from longer-term distress, psychological counseling or medication along with complementary treatments like yoga, meditation or creative arts therapies may be necessary to recover from PTSD.
Trauma and the Brain
The body reacts to trauma by secreting stress hormones, which in some cases, may result in changes to brain areas involved with fear conditioning, threat detection, emotion regulation and information processing.
PTSD also robs survivors of their ability to find the words to express their memories by deactivating their brain’s language center, known as Broca’s area. Together, these brain changes keep people with PTSD stuck in the past with a sense of fear and “speechless terrors".
Restoring the Brain Through Art
The arts, in particular, offer a unique and accessible pathway to healing. The arts may help PTSD survivors ground themselves in the present where they can safely process and place their trauma in the past.
Different art forms have been consistently found to activate a wide swath of sensory processing regions in the brain and enhance the perception of visual, auditory, and touch cues. This sensory engagement during art-making helps survivors integrate fragmented memories and develop a coherent story of their experience.
The Healing Potential of Art Therapy
While work is underway to study creative arts therapies as a tool to help healthcare workers specifically, a growing body of research has examined their effectiveness in other traumatized populations.
Visual arts, expressive writing, music and dance have consistently reduced PTSD symptoms across diverse groups such as military service members, refugees and domestic violence survivors.
Read more about the therapeutic use of the arts for trauma and find additional PTSD resources here.