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  • Writer's pictureHeatherCelestePhD

Nurse Trauma

I was talking with my spouse and mentor recently and teased that if we were to put on a workshop for nurses to help them process their trauma, we’d have to trick them into it. I said we’d have to come up with an official sounding acronym with a certification and advertise it misleadingly so they’d think they were coming for a patient trauma and treatment course, like come dive into trauma and get your PTPC certification! But PTPC would stand for Personal Trauma Processing Course. Imagining a room full of Emergency and Critical Care nurses (yes, I know, just them together in the same room would be scary) thinking they were there to learn patient trauma care, but then spending the whole day processing their own on the job traumatic experiences, was extremely humorous to me.

Nurse trauma is a huge subject that I’ll be writing about in little bits and pieces at a time. I’m calling it nurse trauma here because I’m writing from my personal perspective as a nurse, and I do believe nurses have a particular experience unique from other groups of healthcare workers. Writing from a particular perspective is not in any way meant to invalidate other’s perspectives, it’s just what I have to explore and offer.

So why does the idea of “forcing” a group of acute care nurses to process their trauma, which of course I would never in real life do, send me into a laughing fit? Well, they really are some the most emotionally shut down people on the planet, and the funny part is, I think they mostly don’t know it. I imagine that if I faced a room full of nurses, and asked them how they felt about the trauma they have experienced at work, the majority would be confused and not understand the question. Now of course some will have been the victim of primary trauma at work and might recognize that as such, and then again, they might not. Every day nurses are assaulted and threatened on the job, but for some reason it doesn’t “count” because the perpetrators are confused due to illness, or elderly, or in psychosis or grief, so it’s not really their fault, nurses are often the first ones to say so.

As far as the day to day, shift to shift emotional and secondary trauma nurses experience, they are like fish trying to see the water they live in. I dare say most nurses don’t even identify their experiences as trauma, when a nurse hears the word trauma they most likely think of the physically traumatic injuries of their patients. For years I denied even the idea of my own trauma, literally believing that “Well, it didn’t happen to me.” And yet, if you let my imagined group of nurses mingle for any amount of time something inevitably starts to happen, they start to share horror stories. Go out to dinner, go to a party with, have lunch with a group of nurses and the horror stories almost always show up, much to the chagrin of partners and fellow diners. There is always two aspects to this phenomenon, that there is very much a feeling of one up-ness that keeps going until someone “wins” by telling the worse story, and that there is always a deluge of seemingly inappropriate hilarity.

Now there is a bit of a new trend I’ve noticed, nurse humorists. It seems like the next level, their stories are outrageous and hilarious and most of all laced with truth. They make TikToks and Reels and now are even filling entire auditoriums with stand up acts: Nurse Johnn, Nurse Blake, Stevio, Georgi Carroll, they are hilarious, like pee my pants hilarious.

It took me years (and a PhD in psychology) before I became aware of what was and is happening. First I started to noticed that the stories always came up when I was with a group of nurses. Then I noticed myself participating, then the one up-ness that always went on. The humor I didn’t really even comprehend as a trauma response for even longer, but eventually the light bulb went on, like Oh! This is all unprocessed trauma coming out in the only way we know how! And now we are filling up entire auditoriums and cruise ships to do it!

It is a goal of mine to work with nurses, individually and collectively to bring awareness to the trauma they hold, and help them find tools to work through it. Cumulative emotional and secondary trauma left unacknowledged and unprocessed causes the most painful of emotional shut downs that will eventually express itself in unwelcome ways, physically and emotionally. Exploring our beliefs about what trauma is and how we deny our experiences of it is a starting place.

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Cory Walker
Cory Walker
Feb 07, 2023

'They are like fish unable to see the water they live in,' Damn! First, wonderful writing! Great metaphor for living with repressed trauma one is not aware of. And also, very sad when you realize the implication that Nurses are so steeped in trauma they are living in it, breathing it, moving through it like fish. That is very poignant. Also, funny meme. I read it to a friend then said; "That's you! You can handle all these big things that would leave other people innert but then you're like, "Where's my f****** headphone!?' Once they got done laughing, they agreed it was true. Now being serious, I reiterated an explanation they had given me as to why…


Gary Glickman
Gary Glickman
Feb 07, 2023

Obviously, I love this. I love so many things about it, but most of all it sounds so, well, ready for wide readership. You've found your niche where you are indeed a very unique expert-- such depth of experience as a nurse, and such depth of training now in your new trauma-resolution healing work. I am very impatient to read about your experiences with nurses. Soon, I hope!

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