Advice and development

How I learned it’s okay to ask for support after a traumatic event

Counselling helped one student realise she shouldn't ‘just carry on’ despite her anxiety

Counselling helped one student realise she shouldn't ‘just carry on’ despite her anxiety

In May 2018, I was in my first year of nurse training when I stopped at the scene of a terrible road traffic collision on my way home from placement.

A young female motorcyclist had been hit by a car and was in cardiac arrest. Her injuries were so traumatic, some of the worst I have ever seen. I delivered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for the first time, but despite my best efforts, and those of others who had stopped at the scene, she sadly died.

Other nurses seemed to move on

Having never carried out CPR on a real person before, I was terrified when I stopped and offered my assistance. But not only was it my professional duty to help, I wanted to do all I could to give the patient the best chance of survival.

An air ambulance arrived on the scene and when the patient was pronounced dead by the trauma doctor, I felt nothing but shock. It took me a few days to get over this feeling.

‘Although I was really upset by it, I felt I had to move on and couldn’t let it affect me’

From local news reports about the accident I was devastated to learn that the patient was the same age as me and had a family and a great job. Although I was really upset by this, I felt I had to move on and couldn’t let it affect me. I had seen other nurses move on from similar situations and thought I had to do the same.

I didn’t think much about this incident over the following few months, until I started my second year of training. When my third placement began, I was advised that I would start caring for my own patients, which made me nervous. I was unsettled by this feeling, having never shied away from caring for patients independently in the past.

Picture: iStock

I needed to take a step back

One morning when I was driving to placement, I had a panic attack. I had to pull over in a layby and couldn’t bring myself to drive the rest of the way. I had a bad feeling, like a black cloud hanging over my head, but I had no idea where this was coming from.

I tried to carry on as normal, but started thinking about the accident I had stopped at earlier in the year. I began to feel guilty, questioning everything I had done that day and thinking that maybe I had done more harm than good.

Then, while on placement, I had the worst anxiety attack I had ever experienced. This made me realise that I needed to take a step back and spend some time away from my placement. The anxiety grew worse, and I knew I had to get professional help. I went to my GP, who prescribed medication for anxiety, and I also sought help from the mental health services at my university.

‘Counselling helped me realise that I am only human, and that it is okay not to feel okay’

I started to realise that driving long distances was part of my anxiety, along with caring for patients who were at significant risk of deteriorating – I was worried that I would miss something and have to do CPR again. 

After speaking with a counsellor, I realised this was all linked to the accident I had stopped at months ago. I was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The counsellor helped me realise that what I was experiencing was normal after witnessing a traumatic event, which was reassuring. Counselling also helped me realise that I am only human, and that it is okay not to feel okay.

What to do if you experience a traumatic event

  • Be honest Talking about your experience can help you understand what happened and how to cope with what you have seen. If you are struggling, speak to someone about it, such as your mentor, tutor, family or friends
  • See your GP They can support you, prescribe medication if necessary and signpost you to mental health services such as counselling
  • Speak to student services at your university They can also offer support, and can help with issues related to clinical placements and studies if necessary
  • Don’t suffer in silence Sharing your story with others can help you realise that you are not alone, and that we all need help to cope with the aftermath of a traumatic event
  • Consider counselling RCN members can contact the colleges free counselling service. To make an appointment, call the RCN on 0345 772 6100 between 8.30am and 8.30pm, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Find out more on the RCN website


Nurses, not superheroes

After a few sessions my anxiety improved, and I felt empowered. I realised that what I did that awful day was something to be proud of. The guilt started to lift from my shoulders, and I realised that sharing my story may help others who had experienced something similar.

I have faced many emergency situations since and have felt okay. Although I am yet to perform CPR again, I have felt confident when in emergency situations and surprised at how I've reacted. This has helped with my recovery from PTSD, as well as my nursing practice.

There have been many life lessons from this experience, but the most important is that it is okay to show your emotions. Nurses are not super-heroes. We should never feel embarrassed about feeling this way, and nursing students should always feel comfortable talking to our mentors, tutors and fellow students about how we are feeling.

My advice to anyone who has been through, or is going through, something similar is never give up. Don’t let these experiences get the better of you, and if you feel like you need emotional support, always speak up – help is there if you ask for it.

    Stephanie Powell is a second-year nursing student at the University of Gloucestershire

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