In recent years, emergency departments have become increasingly important to the American health care system. They are now the primary diagnostic and resuscitation centers in most hospitals. As a result, emergency nurses are now required to master a greater quantity of information and a longer list of technical skills. They must also spend a considerable amount of time documenting their work in addition to performing clinical tasks [source: Schriver].
For their troubles, they get a lot of abuse. As many as 75 percent of emergency nurses deal with aggressive behavior and verbal abuse. That's more than twice the percentages for nurses in other fields [source: Adriaenssens].
Beyond all this, they are regularly exposed to others' trauma. Repetitive exposure to trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and recent studies have found that as many as 33 percent of emergency nurses suffer from PTSD, as opposed to only 14 percent of nurses in other departments. According to one study, the most difficult experience for nurses to deal with is the death of children. Helping crash victims and other casualties of extreme physical trauma also leaves its mark [source: Adriaenssens]. And because emergency nurses often have to deal with one trauma after another in rapid succession, they have no time to process or recover in between. Nurses suffering from PTSD can begin to experience nightmares, insomnia and depression, among other mental and emotional symptoms. And these symptoms can in turn lead to poor job performance, more sick days and general burnout.
With adequate preparation, emergency departments can help their nurses deal with PTSD by providing training in cognitive behavioral coping strategies and relaxation techniques. One of the most important elements in helping nurses recover from exposure to trauma is a good social support network within the department. This requires strong leadership from the head nurse, who can help establish a supportive atmosphere where PTSD is recognized as a reality that must be dealt with empathetically. In the end, those who deal best with PTSD are the same personality types best suited to emergency nursing: those who can speed up or slow down as needed, who are able to resist stress and multi-task easily, and above all, those who can stay calm in the midst of chaos.