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Coping After a Burn: 11 Ways to Heal Emotionally

If you’ve had a serious burn, you know how difficult it can be to cope with the pain and to heal. Burns don’t just have a physical impact. They can affect your emotional health as well. 

“Suffering a burn injury can be a traumatic and life-altering experience,” said Lourdes Castanon, MD, director of the burn care program at Banner – University Medicine. “The emotional impact of a burn is often complex and can affect people in various ways. It isn’t always apparent, and it can linger for many years after the physical wounds have healed.”
Right after a burn, you may feel shocked and in disbelief as you come to terms with the trauma. You may be in denial and feel numb and detached. “After the initial shock subsides, you may have feelings of anxiety and fear about the future or feelings of uncertainty about scarring, disfigurement and long-term effects,” Dr. Castanon said. 

It’s common to feel angry and frustrated as you struggle to make sense of your circumstances and the impact on your life and your loved ones. You might direct your anger at yourself or the people closest to you, and you may be irritable or resentful or have outbursts. If your injuries change your daily routines, these limitations might also affect your reactions. 

“The emotional toll of a burn can often lead to feelings of sadness, helplessness and despair and develop into depression,” Dr. Castanon said. “Coping with the aftermath of the injury and adjusting to changes in your appearance and functionality can trigger feelings of grief, isolation, worthlessness or helplessness.”

Tips for coping

If you’re recovering from a burn injury, it’s important to take steps to heal emotionally as well as physically. Otherwise, your overall healing process may take longer and you may develop long-term mental health issues. 

“Emotional well-being is closely linked to your quality of life. Coping with the emotional aftermath of an injury can significantly impact your ability to adjust to your physical appearance, functionality and daily routines,” Dr. Castanon said.

The first step is to understand that emotional reactions to a burn injury are normal and valid. Those reactions may impact your self-image, relationships and daily functioning.

These steps may help you cope:

  1. Express yourself: Share your feelings with family and friends. You may also want to write in a journal or try creative activities.
  2. Lean on your loved ones: “Surround yourself with family, friends and peers who can offer emotional support, encouragement and practical assistance during your recovery,” Dr. Castanon said.
  3. Join support groups: With in-person or online support groups, you can exchange insights, coping strategies and encouragement. “Connecting with others who have gone through similar experiences can provide a sense of solidarity and understanding,” Dr. Castanon said.
  4. Educate yourself and your loved ones: “When you understand your injuries, treatment options and recovery process, it can help reduce anxiety and fear of the future,” Dr. Castanon said. Also, your loved ones may not realize how a burn injury can impact emotional health. It can help to explain your challenges to them.
  5. Set realistic goals for your recovery: Use a problem-solving mindset to break big goals into small, manageable steps. Celebrate your progress.
  6. Expect setbacks: The healing process isn’t always linear, so if you’re prepared for some setbacks, you’ll be better able to handle them.
  7. Develop coping skills: Mindfulness techniques, meditation, deep breathing exercises and positive reframing strategies (such as gratitude practice) can help.
  8. Practice self-care: Caring for yourself builds self-compassion, which is key when you’re facing emotional challenges. Make time for activities that promote physical, emotional and mental well-being, such as exercise, healthy eating, sleep and activities that bring you joy or help you relax. “The earlier we are able to bring people back to their daily activities and routines, the better their long-term success,” Dr. Castanon said.
  9. Stay connected with your health care team: Follow their recommendations for wound care therapy and rehabilitation. “Open communication is essential, so your providers know how to help you,” Dr. Castanon said. “And many burn programs have resources available for after your discharge, so ask your professional health care provider for this information.”
  10. Be patient and kind to yourself: “Recovery is gradual, and the process takes time, patience and perseverance. Acknowledge your emotions and allow yourself time to grieve, heal and grow at your own pace,” she said.
  11. Get professional support: Mental health professionals can help you process your emotions and build your coping skills. They can also connect you with online resources that can support you and your family.

How professional support can help

Addressing emotional challenges can help you regain a sense of control, resilience and hope for the future.

“Your mind has a tremendous effect on your body. If you’re in despair, you won’t heal. If you’re overwhelmed with your emotions, you can’t participate in your care,” Dr. Castanon said. 

“Counselors or therapists that specialize in burn injuries can provide guidance, support and resources to help you navigate the physical and emotional challenges of recovery,” Dr. Castanon said. 

She recommends seeking support from a mental health professional if you:

  • Have significant emotional distress.
  • Are struggling to cope after the injury.
  • Notice changes in your mental health. 
  • Have feelings of anxiety, fear or depression that affect your functioning. 
  • Have difficulties adjusting to the changes in your appearance, mobility or functionality.
  • Have intrusive thoughts, flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Are having outbursts or mood swings that are impacting your relationships. 
  • Are becoming socially withdrawn or isolated or are avoiding activities you used to enjoy.
  • Have trouble sleeping.
  • Have changes in your appetite.
  • Have disruptions in your daily patterns. 
  • Have feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.
  • Are thinking about self-harm or suicide
  • Are struggling to manage stress, cope with the pain or deal with the emotional challenges of recovery. 
  • Have concentration, memory or decision-making issues that affect your daily tasks and responsibilities. 

“It is important to remember that seeking help from a mental health professional is a proactive step towards self-care and healing,” Dr. Castanon said.

With self-care, support and other healing steps, you can find a path to acceptance after a burn injury. “Developing resilience in the face of adversity, finding meaning in the experience and rebuilding your life with a sense of purpose can empower you to navigate the emotional issues of a burn injury with courage and perseverance,” Dr. Castanon said.

The bottom line

Burns don’t just cause physical injuries. They can trigger emotional issues as well. These emotional problems might not be obvious, and they can last long after the physical burns have healed. But you can take steps to recover emotionally from burn injuries.

If you’re struggling to heal after a burn, reach out to an expert at Banner Health for support and care.

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