Emotional response to a Burn Injury

24 January 2019 AdjustmentPeer Support

Emotional reactions to a Burn Injury

Although each person’s experience is a unique personal event there are some common reactions that can be experienced after a life-threatening trauma such as a burn injury.  It is reassuring to know how others react in similar situations.

What happens to the way I feel when I have a burn injury?

When somebody has a burn injury there is a normal and expected response to the trauma of suffering that injury.

It is normal and common for people to have flashbacks, feel anxious and have trouble sleeping. People may feel they need to withdraw from their social connections e.g. family and friends. They may feel unsafe and have panic attacks. They may also have feelings of depression and or anger.

These responses are normal and expected in the early period after having the injury. The trauma of the injury is a stress that can overwhelm the brain and make it difficult to process or integrate what has happened. There are physiological reactions that are happening to the body with the release of stress hormones such as adrenalin, cortisol and others that can increase your heart rate and breathing rate. The unconscious parts of the brain take over the conscious which are responsible for logic, planning and control. This is often termed Acute Stress Disorder. THIS IS NORMAL.

What are normal feelings I may experience after a burn injury?


  • Shock – Disbelief at what has happened; numbness, the event may seem unreal, like a dream; slow comprehension of what has happened
  • Fear – of damage to oneself, or death; of a recurrence of the event; awareness of personal vulnerability; panicky irrational feelings; other apparently unrelated fears
  • Anger – at who caused the accident, or “allowed it to happen”; outrage at what happened; at the injustice or senselessness of it all; generalised irritability
  • Helplessness – crises show human powerlessness, as well as strength
  • Sadness – about human destruction and losses of every kind; for loss of the belief that the world is safe and predictable
  • Shame – for being exposed as helpless, “emotional” and needing others; for not reacting as you would have liked

These feelings are common.  Expressing them allows nature to heal. They usually only last for short periods at a time & gradually diminish over the first few weeks.  Different feelings may dominate as time goes by.

How can these affect my behaviour?

The effects can be expressed in many ways and various combinations such as those listed below.

  • Tension – more easily startled, general agitation – physical or mental
  • Sleep Disturbances – inability to sleep, thoughts that prevent sleep, replaying the incident
  • Dreams & Nightmares – of the incident, or other vivid and frightening events
  • Fearfulness – of the place or reminders of the incident
  • Intrusive Memories & Feelings – interfere with concentration, daily life; flashbacks; attempting to shut them out which can lead to numbing of thoughts and feelings
  • Irritability – frequent mood swings
  • Depression – about the event, past events or personal effects; non-specific depression; guilt about reactions
  • Social Withdrawal – a need to be alone
  • Physical Sensations – tiredness, palpitations, tremors, breathing difficulties, headaches, tense muscles, aches and pains, loss of appetite, loss of sexual interest, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation and many other symptoms.
  • Delayed Effects – any of these effects may occur months or years after satisfactory adjustment.

These physical & emotional symptoms are normal.  They develop in people facing stress, threat or loss, and are responses that help the person adapt.  They can be unpleasant or distressing to those affected & their families.

When should I seek help if these feelings are preventing me from getting back to life?

For most people these feelings will settle within about 6 weeks. However for some people the feelings of fear, anxiety, lack of control, frustration and anger can persist and may develop into a post-traumatic stress disorder.

People may need extra help getting over such an experience.  Your family or friends may be better judges of when you need help.

Some things to look out for include

  • If you cannot handle the intense feelings or bodily sensations.
  • If you feel that your emotions are not returning to normal over a period of time, you feel chronic tension or confusion.
  • If you continue to have bodily symptoms.
  • If you continue to feel numb and empty, and do not have appropriate feelings.
  • If you have to keep active in order to avoid thinking & feeling.
  • If you continue to have nightmares and disturbed sleep.
  • If you have no person or group with whom to share your emotions.
  • If your relationship and work seem to be suffering or change as a result of the event.
  • If you are having accidents, or increasing use of alcohol or drugs.

If you, your spouse or children are showing any of these effects & you wish to discuss the matter, or if there are any other ongoing changes in emotion or behaviour that are worrying you please seek help.

How can I help to cope with or manage these feelings?

The following ideas may help in coming to terms with the experience.

  • Acceptance – recognise your personal reaction & acknowledge that you have been through a highly stressful experience. Excessive denial or lack of acceptance of your feelings may delay the recovery process
  • Support – seek out other people’s practical and emotional support. Talk about your feelings to other people who will understand.  Sharing with others who have had similar experiences can also help.
  • Going Over the Events – as you allow the trauma into your mind, there is a need to think and talk about it. Confronting the reality bit by bit, rather than avoiding any reminders will help you come to terms with the events.
  • Expressing Feelings – it is important not to bottle up feelings, but to express them. Talking with others about our experience & feelings are natural healing methods that help us to accept what has happened.
  • Taking Care of Yourself – during periods of stress, we are more prone to accidents and physical illness. It is important to look after yourself, by driving more carefully, have sufficient sleep, maintain a good diet and relaxing.
  • The Positive Side – after a trauma people can come out wiser & stronger. At a community level, bonds between people strengthen by having shared an intense experience.  Your experience of this event may help deal better with everyday stresses.  It can also be a turning point where you re-evaluate the value of life and appreciate the little things that are often overlooked.  Try to identify the positive aspects for yourself and those close to you.

Where can I get help from?

Contact your Burn team or your local doctor to discuss any issues you might be experiencing and for referral to counselling support.

Peer support groups can be a great place to chat with people who have gone through the same experience.

If you need to speak to someone urgently please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636



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