South Africa’s statistics on crime, rape, family violence and ICU patients’ depict a very sad and grim story.  Our health care professionals have to deal with severe traumatic incidents on a daily basis. Moreover, in a national audit of critical care resources in South Africa, it was mentioned that “ICU nursing in South Africa faces the challenge of an acute shortage of trained and experienced nurses.  ...nurses are tired, often not healthy, and are plagued by discontent and low morale.” (Anon, 2007).

 “The English word trauma is derived from a Greek term meaning 'wound'. Traumatic events are extraordinary events because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life and generally involve threats to one's life and physical integrity or a close encounter with death. Furthermore the traumatic event collapses one’s world view and assumptions about life in one blow, as well as confronts us with extreme feelings of helplessness, terror, loss of control and freedom and the threat of annihilation.” (Schulz, van Wijk, & Jones, 2000) Dealing with trauma on a constant basis leads to a continued experience of stress, something that health care professionals are not strangers to. “Stress is often described as a feeling of being overwhelmed, worried or run-down” (APA Help Centre, 2011) In addition stress can be defined as an “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioural changes” (Baum, 1990). When we experience stress, our bodies react, using defence mechanisms in order to cope. The body releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol which prepares the body for the “fight or flight” reaction.  However, a continued or high amount of stress is likely to be detrimental to a person’s emotional, physical and psychological well-being:  “The physical effects of excessive stress have long been recognized -- from heart attacks and strokes to ulcers and other gastrointestinal disorders. Continual stress also takes a toll on the body's immune system, causing frequent colds and other illnesses. Psychologically, stress can lead to depression, anxiety and even panic attacks. Also, victims of or witnesses to violence in the workplace may suffer from a range of trauma-related illness including post-traumatic stress disorder.” (Maxon, 1999). A further likely consequence of chronic stress could be compassion fatigue. Needless to say, if a person who needs to be compassionate suffers from this traumatic stress disorder, it would be very disadvantageous to their career and the people they help. Compassion fatigue (also known as a secondary traumatic stress disorder) can be defined as:  “a condition characterised by a gradual lessening of compassion over time.” (Anon, 2007). It is common among trauma victims and individuals that work directly with trauma victims. It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, and a pervasive negative attitude. If your client is considering a career as a health professional or if they are currently working in this field and experiencing trauma, they should be made aware of the potential negative effects that stress and trauma may have on their physical as well as psychological and emotional health which in turn could have a detrimental effect on their work and personal life. Counselling and stress management workshops could be to their advantage in navigating this challenging field of work successfully. If you found this article interesting, why not subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter? Photo by: Gobierno Federal

Reference: Anon. (2007). National audit of critical care resources in South Africa. South African Medical Journal, 97(12):1315-1318. Anon (2007a). Compassion Fatigue - Because You Care. St. Petersburg Bar Association Magazine. Retrieved from . Baum,1990. “Stress, Intrusive Imagery, and Chronic Distress,” Health Psychology, Vol. 6, pp. 653-675. Boudreaux E, Mandry C, Brantley PJ. Stress, job satisfaction, coping, and psychological distress among emergency medical technicians. Source Department of Psychology, Louisiana State University, USA. Retrieved from Marc van Veldhoven, Jan de Jonge, Sjaak Broersen, Michiel Kompier & Theo Meijman. (2011). Specific relationships between psychosocial job conditions and job-related stress: A three-level analytic approach. Maxon, 1999. Stress in the Workplace: A Costly Epidemic. Fairleigh Dickinson University. Retrieved from Schulz,H, van Wijk,T & Jones,P. (2000). Trauma in South Africa: Understanding emotional trauma and aiding recovery. Retrieved from Scribante J, Bhagwanjee S. (2011) National audit of critical care resources in South Africa - nursing profile. Source Department of Anaesthesiology, University of the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg Hospital, Johannesburg, South Africa. Retrieved from Anon (2011), Concern over domestic violence stats. SAPA. Retrieved from Crime statistics retrieved from