Key Takeaways

    • There is no “right way” to feel. Trauma occurs when we are scared to death and don’t know what to do.
    • Self-care is crucial. You do not have to be diagnosed with a severe psychological disorder in order to benefit from counseling or psychotherapy.
    • You should reach out for help immediately if you are thinking of harming yourself or someone else.
Perspective of a psychologist and mother of an ICU survivor

There could be numerous factors contributing to your inability to effectively practice self-care or reduce your distress to a manageable level. Here are some valuable insights and tips from a psychologist who, as a mother, faced the challenge of caring for her 20-year-old son during a three-month stay in the ICU.

My gosh, what could be worse? Your loved one has a serious medical condition, and here you are, feeling helpless to do anything about it. Or maybe you did do something that saved their life, but now their fate is in other people’s hands. And there you are, relying on others – medical people and perhaps even a machine or two that you hope will do what your loved one’s body can no longer do on its own.

Or maybe by now, the big immediate crisis is over, but it is on you to provide a lot of care. Or maybe the worst of it is behind you, but your mind doesn’t seem to have caught up, so parts of the whole awful experience have stayed with you.

Being seriously ill or hospitalized during the pandemic
And what if all of this happened during the pandemic? That’s what could be worse! Now, even the medical people you need to rely on might be overwhelmed and unable to provide the attention your loved one needs. And even worser (not a real word, I realize, but maybe no word can capture how terrible this is for you right now) is the fact that the new pandemic rules say you can’t be there with this person you love so much, in the midst of their distress – and yours.
Am I normal?

If you are wondering whether what you are feeling is normal, the answer is both yes and no. There actually is no “right way” to feel. So don’t worry – whatever you are feeling or not feeling is completely OK. After all, this is a highly abnormal situation, so how could there be a normal way to feel? But please know that however you are reacting, there are others in your situation who have responded in exactly the same way. So there is no reason to feel embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed for your very understandable reactions.

Co-survivor insight: “I found myself at odds with my gratitude that my loved one survived yet feeling grief at what is forever changed. I felt guilty for feeling grief when my loved one survived. I realized that it’s okay to feel many different things throughout my journey.”

Understanding caregiver burden
“Caregiver burden” refers to the emotional, physical, and financial strain experienced by those caring for a loved one with a chronic illness or disability. Caregivers of cardiac arrest survivors may face significant challenges, including coordinating medical appointments, managing therapies, and providing emotional support. It is crucial to recognize and acknowledge the challenges associated with caregiver burden to take proactive steps to care for yourself and maintain balance.

For more information on caregiver burden, visit:

Family Caregiver Alliance:

Self-care is very important

Please read some of the other articles that describe how important self-care is at times like this, because they offer some excellent ways to tend to your own physical and mental health during this worst of times. Remember that you are an important player in this whole scenario and we want you to be in the best condition possible. So please take good care of yourself. After what you have been through and all you have done, you deserve it.

Co-survivor insight: “After my daughter’s cardiac arrest, I came to a point of a new normal, and I felt like I had things under control. Then, something else medical happened to her, and I broke. I realized that the cardiac event wasn’t the only challenge we’d face. I realized that we don’t get to bypass other hardships just because we’ve had one horrible thing. I needed to process the cardiac arrest so I could cope with other aspects of my life. I reached out for support through my employer’s personal assistance service and started seeing a therapist.”

What is psychological trauma?
But what if all of this is not enough? Maybe no one told you about how to take care of yourself, or maybe you didn’t feel comfortable focusing on yourself when so much was going on around you. No need to fret about that, I get it. I’ve been there. Or, maybe you did follow the self-care suggestions and it wasn’t enough to keep your stress level manageable.

Maybe your stress reached the level of psychological trauma. There’s no real cutoff to distinguish trauma from mere stress. Something I wrote about elsewhere, though, describes it as I saw it as I was going through it. Actually, it was more like after I went through it when I had the time to reflect on my experience. I’m not sure my brain had very many clear thoughts while I was in the midst of it.

In that piece, I wrote that trauma occurs when we feel extreme fear or terror in the context of perceived helplessness. In other words, trauma occurs when we are scared to death and don’t know what to do. If you are up for it, you can read an account of my own experience when my son was in the ICU (pre-pandemic). But if you are in the phase of your own journey in which you are still feeling overwhelmed, then please do yourself a favor and save that for another time.

Co-survivor insight: “I knew I needed help while my loved one was in the hospital. I saw my primary care physician as soon as I could to get some guidance. But, it was about one year later when I actually met with a therapist. I should have gone sooner. I am better at handling my PTSD as time goes by. Therapy was very helpful in my understanding of why I feel as I do.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

There is a reason it is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is because it is common for psychological symptoms to develop after the upsetting event is over. You may have enough symptoms of trauma-related distress that a mental health professional would diagnose you as having PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD tend to fall into 4 main types:

Re-experiencing the Trauma:

    • Flashbacks (feeling like it’s happening again right now)
    • Intrusive thoughts (constantly thinking about the upsetting event)
    • Frequent nightmares related to the event

Avoidance and Numbing:

    • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the event (including people, conversations, places)
    • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
    • Feeling detached from other people
    • Feeling emotionally numb (you don’t know how you feel)

High Arousal and Reactivity:

    • Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
    • Irritability or angry outbursts
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Hypervigilance (constantly alert to anything that might go wrong)
    • Exaggerated startle response (being jumpy)

Negative Thoughts & Feelings:

    • Exaggerated blaming of self or others for causing the trauma
    • Overly negative thoughts about yourself or others

If you have enough of these symptoms, you might be experiencing PTSD. That’s okay. There is help for this. (See below.)

Click here for more information on PTSD.

Co-survivor insight: “My main symptom has been hypervigilance and fear of recurrence. I try to tell myself that some things are within my control, and other things are not. Mindfulness has been a helpful tool for me.”

But maybe you only have one or two of these symptoms. Or maybe you don’t have any of those particular ones, but other symptoms instead—chronic anxiety, fear, panic attacks, depression, or maybe you get physically sick a lot or have developed symptoms in your body that doctors can’t explain. Maybe you want to run away and hide from the whole situation.

Previous trauma

You may have heard the terms “trigger” or “trigger warning.” If a person has suffered an earlier trauma that has not been adequately addressed, when they are in a situation that reminds them of that trauma, they may become “triggered” such that they become flooded with memories and feelings of the first trauma. Again, if this happens, it is good to know that this does happen and can be treated.

Co-survivor insight: “It was important for me to find a trauma-informed therapist that could help me understand the science behind what I was feeling.”

When do I need help from a professional?

Harm to myself or to someone else
There are times when you should reach out immediately for professional help. If you are having serious thoughts about killing or doing harm to yourself or someone else, you should seek help immediately.

Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Dial 988 US:

Self-destructive behaviors/unsafe activities

Sometimes people use alcohol, drugs, food, sexual activity, or other reckless behaviors to cope with a situation, to try to feel better or to distract themselves from thinking about very distressing things. Of course, some of these behaviors are more serious than others, and It is not always easy to tell when this requires intervention. If you find you are using substances or engaging in self-destructive behaviors of any type to take away or help you manage your feelings, it is a good idea to seek help early on, before the situation has a chance to escalate.

Bad feelings that don’t leave

All of the symptoms and feelings I mentioned above might go away in their own time.

However, you should reach out for help if the feelings or symptoms:

    • Last more than a few months, OR
    • Are interfering with your ability to live your life as you want to, OR
    • Family members or friends see that you are not your old self or express concern about you, OR
    • You want to feel or function better

Click here for a detailed list of additional vetted resources that could help.

As a co-survivor of cardiac arrest, it is essential to recognize and address your emotional well-being. By effectively managing your emotions, identifying signs of distress, and seeking professional help, you can better support your loved one while also taking care of yourself. Utilize the resources mentioned above to help guide you through this challenging time, and remember that you are not alone in your journey

Thank You to Our Contributors

Maureen O’Reilly-Landry & Jennifer Chap

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