The psychological impacts of burn injuries, and ways of coping

This section covers:

  • Psychological impact
  • Moving forward and getting ‘back to normal’ after having a burn
  • Acceptance of the situation
  • Ways of coping

Having a burn injury can be a traumatic experience, with emotional and mental health impacts as well as physical ones. A lot of the people we spoke to told us that, over time, it was important for them to “get back to normal” – though ‘normal’ was different for each person. As well as the impacts of having a burn, we heard about the different coping mechanisms people used for adjusting to life with a burn.

There are times when Frazer feels vulnerable about his burns, but on the whole he feels he has “dealt” well with the support of his friends and family.

All of the people we spoke to had been burnt at least one year before being interviewed, though many were burnt a lot longer ago. Some of the adults we spoke to had been burnt as a child and had lived with a burn for over 40 years. Other people had been more recently burnt.

Psychological impact

People we spoke to described feeling shocked, frightened and uncertain when they were first burnt and in the following weeks or months. Some had flashbacks and nightmares about what had happened, or ongoing anxiety related to the circumstances of their burns. Charlotte explained how having a burn “is very much a mental and physical thing”. India told us that people sometimes don’t realise how traumatic having a burn injury can be, she believes this is because of a lack of awareness about burn injuries within society.

Charlotte experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being burnt.

For some, it took a while for the emotional impact to hit. Holly, whose child was burnt, explained, “it’s a funny one, how your brain sort of compartmentalises some [things], maybe dulls things down so you can deal with it at the time, and then maybe later it really comes out”.

A burn injury could add to existing stress, anxiety, depression, or grief. Raffaella’s mum died in the months after her burn injury, which added to difficult feelings of “isolation [and] being alone”. Tom’s burn happened when he had just finished his university degree and was gearing up to enjoy summer before starting work: “I was just stuck at home living with my parents, it’s supposed to be like a new chapter in my life and it was just hard to find jobs when you’re sort of recovering from a burn injury”, which left him at “quite a low point of confidence”.

Frazer experienced anxiety growing up, he said his anxiety returned after he was burnt when he was an adult. He said having a good friendship network helped him to cope.

You can read more about experiences of feeling self-conscious and concerned about changes to appearance here.

Counselling, psychological therapy, and other forms of talking therapy were used by some of the people we spoke to. For some, this was beneficial and helped them to process their emotions. For others, however, talking about their burn injury was difficult and something they tended to avoid.

Gary said that attending therapy sessions was “like a release”.

Jeff found talking to a psychologist to be a helpful way of managing his mental health.

The timing of support for the psychological impacts of burns was important. A few, like Sarah and Sabrina, said they thought they would have benefitted from talking to a psychologist or talking to one a bit sooner than they did. Sarah explained how “I have thought on and off like ‘Maybe I should have some help psychologically’ but as time has gone by… you get there in the end”.

Sinead, whose daughter had a burn injury, had mixed experiences of psychological support. Recent counselling had been helpful, and she highlighted that it has to be “the right time” for the person or parent of a child with a burn. Sabrina think signposting to psychological support is important; even if someone doesn’t feel they need or are ready for it in that moment, they may change their minds later on.

Moving forward and getting ‘back to normal’ after having a burn

For some people we talked to, moving forward was about learning to accept “a new normal” way of living after they were burnt. A few said that “the passage of time” was “a great healer” in helping them begin to move forwards. This was an ongoing process for many; as India said, “you can’t just deal with it one time and it’s done, it’s like a continuous process that you deal with as you grow older”.

Starting to do daily tasks and activities again, such as exercising or going to the shops, also helped people to regain a sense of normality. Marilyn shared with us that being “immersed in normality” helped her to recover from her burn, such as getting back to spending time with family.

Amy and Chris Y said that it was “a big step” when their son, William, was able to cook pasta again after he sustained a scald.

It took Jessica’s daughter a long time to feel comfortable in the bath again after she was burnt.

Raffaella said being burnt taught her to take each day one at a time.

Some people felt that part of their independence had been “lost” when they were burnt, as they weren’t able to do some of the things they used to do. Regaining a sense of independence could be an important step towards “getting back to normal”. Rhian was unable to drive in the early stages of her recovery. She said it was “important” to her that she was able to drive again quickly as she lived in a remote area. Marilyn told us that it “helped her confidence tremendously” when she regained some of her independence.

Acceptance of the situation

Accepting what had happened was difficult for many of the people we spoke to, but some people shared with us how they had sought to make sense of what had happened and the impact on their lives. After she was burnt, Raffaella felt “incredibly angry” and was struggling to deal with what had happened. In time, she began to adopt a mindset of “what has happened has happened, you can’t change it”, and this helped her to begin to accept the situation. Rhian found that by viewing her burn as a part of herself, she was able to stop it from “taking over her life”, and that this became easier with time.

Rhian didn’t want the burn to take over her life.

A few people found it helpful to recognise that “accidents happen”. Some people told us they felt reassured when doctors would tell them “it was just an accident” or other people would share similar stories. This was especially true for parents, who can sometimes struggle with feelings of guilt when their child was accidentally burnt. Lily said that her family reassured her by telling her that “it can happen to anyone”.

In time, Jessica was able to accept that accidents happen.

Ways of coping

The people we spoke to had tried lots of different coping mechanisms for adjusting to life with a burn and managing the challenges they faced as a result of their burn.

Having a range of strategies to use to suit a particular circumstance can help people with burns to cope in different situations, rather than only having a singular way of coping. The most helpful strategies could also change over time and as people grew older.

For some, humour and making jokes were ways that they dealt with what had happened. When she was younger, India would joke about how she had sustained her burns when people asked her questions, like saying she had fought a dragon. She explained how it “took a while to be able to joke about it” and how she had to “feel comfortable” with herself before she was able to make jokes.

Frazer told us that using humour as a coping mechanism came naturally to him.

Sinead told us that her coping mechanism was laughter.

Catherine found attending local baby groups, as well as humour, to be good coping mechanisms.

Other people used distraction techniques, such as focussing on their work or a hobby, to distract them from thinking about the burn. Once he was well enough, Tom joined a local rowing club to distract himself from everything else which was going on.

Rhian found it useful to focus on other areas of her life to distract her from her burn.

Some people found that meditation, breath work, and other mindfulness practices helped them to create a more positive mindset. Mercy told us that she would write about how she was feeling in her journal if she felt anxious and this helped her to manage her emotions better.

Mercy used journaling as a way to cope with difficult feelings and situations.

Gary used mindfulness practices, such as meditation and breath work, as a coping mechanism.

Exercise was a coping mechanism for a few people. Mercy would go for an early morning swim as it helped her to “deal with her day”. As well as finding enjoyment again when listening to music, Helen Y said that playing tennis released endorphins (‘feel-good’ hormones) which helped her to cope with her emotions. Some people with burns exercise in order to feel good about their body and what it can achieve.

Many of the people we spoke to described situations with other people that they tried to manage in various ways. This included having stock answers ready about their burns, wearing clothes or accessories to hide their burns and acting more confidently than they felt in some social situations. You can read more about these experiences in the sections on dealing with other peoples reactions and managing the impact on appearance and self-image.

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