The psychological consequences of a stay in intensive care
It can take several months or even more than a year to fully recover from a stay in intensive care. During this time, you may feel very weak, tired at the slightest effort, and you may have difficulty performing routine tasks such as dressing, moving around and feeding yourself. This sense of loss of independence is confusing and can be difficult to accept. The stay in intensive care is a difficult and intense experience that leaves its mark despite the precautions taken by the care teams to accompany you as best they can. Learn more about the patient’s experience in the ICU.
It is normal that you may feel :
- Constantly tired,
- Tired and demoralized
- Irritable and aggressive
- Guilty and worried about the problems you may feel you are causing around you
- No appetite
- Disoriented because you don’t understand what happened to you and how sick you were
- Scared because you were close to death and are afraid of getting sick again
- Impatient and concerned that recovery is taking too long
After you are discharged from the ICU, you may also have the following psychological symptoms:
Dreams that will seem more than real
Hallucinations, nightmares and flashbacks: Some patients report having (or having had during their stay) dreams where they are prisoners, tortured. These dreams are probably related to the feeling of helplessness during the stay in the intensive care unit, the possible restraints used to prevent patients from tearing out catheters and probes necessary for their survival, or in connection with the painful care sometimes provided, etc.
Other patients report dreams of boat trips, which is probably related to the strange sensations of lying on an air mattress, intended to prevent bed sores. These mattresses inflate and deflate constantly and can give the impression of sailing on water. Many so-called “delusional” memories are related to words perceived during the coma phase without understanding the context.
By talking to the people who have visited you, or if you have benefited from a logbook, you may find elements that will help you better understand and make sense of your dreams of resuscitation. It can be very helpful to understand how your mind has constructed these not always pleasant dreams.
Anxiety or paranoia
You may feel anxious when you leave the ICU to go to another department, or about coming back to the hospital for your follow-up tests. If these symptoms are too disabling, especially for your medical follow-up, it is important to talk about them. These symptoms are common and are related to the intense life experience of being in the ICU. You are not responsible for this and simple anti-anxiety prescriptions can greatly help you overcome this difficult phase. Talk to your doctor or health care team about it.
Please note: These strange dreams, flashbacks and feelings of great anxiety may be symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is important to talk to your family and your doctor because the earlier you start treatment, the more effective it will be. You can also, if you wish, complete a non-drug therapy with a competent practitioner: sophrology, therapeutic hypnosis, psychotherapy… in order to learn simple methods that will help you get through these moments in a more peaceful way. Your attending physician can refer you to a trusted practitioner.
Your family and friends have experienced the weeks you spent in intensive care as an intensely anxious time. When you are discharged, they may be particularly protective, even overprotective, which can be pleasant but also annoying if you are usually a very independent person. Good communication of your needs (for help but also for solitude and calm) will help you find a new balance. Talk to them about how you feel, and ask them how they feel and how they experienced the time of your hospitalization.
This will help you understand each other better. Asking them to tell you about your hospitalization will also allow them to evacuate the accumulated anguish and will allow you to better understand the time needed for your recovery.
Your recovery depends on rest and regular sleep, but your sleep may be very fragmented in the early stages. Your nycthemeral rhythm (day/night rhythm) was strongly disrupted in the ICU because of the permanent care and monitoring you underwent. It may take several weeks to get back to normal sleep. Avoid coffee and tea at the end of the day and choose quiet activities (reading, radio) before bedtime. Again, if you need help, your doctor can help you.
Understand what happened to you
The feeling of being in intensive care is very personal. It may vary from patient to patient. Some people will be worried about their future treatment, others will try to forget about it. For others, having been so ill is a traumatic experience, which will take a lot of time and work to accept. Some people feel the need to make changes in their lives or start new projects. However you react to this moment, your feelings are legitimate.
Things that can help you get over what you have experienced
After your discharge, you may have questions about your stay in the ICU. Some hospitals will offer post-hospitalization clinical follow-up, which may include a visit to the ward where you were treated to see the people who cared for you and to understand what happened to you.
This idea of going back to the ICU may be frightening, so wait until you are ready to do so, but it will help you understand what happened and what you experienced.
Reading and rereading the diary written by your loved ones during your stay will also help you to resemble your memories, to recover your memory and to give meaning to what you experienced during your stay in the ICU. You may want to read it alone, or you may feel more comfortable having a friend or family member present or reading to you at your request. Get help if you need it.