Like many catastrophic injuries, the consequences of a burn injury can persist long after the final scars heal. According to the World Health Organization, burns are the leading cause of morbidity, including prolonged hospitalization, disability and disfigurement. Many people who sustain burn injuries also often live with feelings of rejection and psychological distress.

According to Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center, it is not uncommon for burn injury victims to experience some level of psychological distress in the days or weeks following the incident. For most people, the episodes of distress grow less frequent and less upsetting over time. However, for others, they persist and become stronger.

Symptoms of psychological distress in burn injury survivors

Everyone experiences psychological distress differently, so there is no uniform set of symptoms victims and their loved ones can turn to for reference. That said, some symptoms are more common than others among burn injury victims.

People who survive burn injuries often report feeling anxious, sad or irritable. Many feel hopeless and helpless, and upset that they have to depend on others for help. Despite having to rely on others, burn victims report feeling distanced from friends, family and the public.

Burn victims also often report reliving the trauma from the incident. This causes them to develop a physical reaction, such as trouble breathing, increased heart rate and sweating.

Burn victims report startling easily in the weeks and months following the incident. Many feel “super alert” all the time, or as if they are on guard. These feelings of alertness result in difficulty falling and staying asleep or enjoying activities they once loved.

How psychological distress affects health and recovery

Psychological distress is known to have adverse effects on a person’s physical and mental health. For instance, distress can impair bodily functions, such as digestion and the immune system. It can also interfere with how the mind works, such as reducing one’s attention span or impairing his or her memory.

Distress can also interfere with recovery. For instance, it can make a burn victim unwilling to participate in recovery activities, such as physical therapy; increase the feelings of pain and itchiness; disrupt sleep; make communication with the recovery team difficult; and cause tension in interpersonal relationships.