Common Psychological Responses

The immediate response to catastrophic illness or injury is survival. While the injured person is recovering from the injury, family members begin to undergo the adjustment to their loved one's injury. When the panic or shock subsides, feelings of denial, anger, fear for the future, and anxiety typically follow.


Denial is a defense mechanism. Initially it protects you, keeping families from feeling overwhelmed by the catastrophic event. However, lingering denial can prevent you from dealing with important issues, or decisions that must be addressed.

During the hospitalization, you will probably get information from numerous physicians, therapists, nurses, or social workers. You may be responsible for many decisions about the care of your loved ones, which is a burdensome and stressful process. As a result, you may feel isolated or lonely because you don't have the resources of your loved one to help you make these decisions.


As you let go of denial, you may find yourself expressing anger. It could be directed at your loved ones, other family members, people you perceive as responsible for the injury or illness, medical care providers, the legal system, or even God.

Effectively dealing with anger and frustration might require the help of a mental health professional. A professional can suggest appropriate problem-solving strategies and stress management techniques.

Hard as it is to do, it may be important for you to take breaks from being at the hospital around the clock. Although it is difficult, arrange for someone to relieve you, even for several hours. This allows you to get out of the hospital environment, regain your composure, and revitalize yourself. You'll return with more energy.

Concern for the Future

Once you know your loved one will survive, focus typically shifts to issues of functional abilities and quality of life. You wonder if your loved one will be able to talk, eat, walk, care for themselves, or earn a living.

Caregivers often learn through trial and error the best ways to help an impaired relative maintain routines for eating, hygiene, and other activities at home. Special training in the use of assistive equipment and managing difficult behaviors may be needed. It is also important to follow a safety checklist.


Anxiety is common while the injured person is being reintegrated into the home. Having someone to discuss your concerns with can provide great relief. That person may be another family member or a professional staff member. Professionals may be consulted during this time to assist you with coping skills acquisition, relaxation methods, or stress relief. Either way, it's important to use the support of others and share your concerns.

You might experience other challenges as well: fatigue, depression, sleep disturbance, feelings of social isolation, feelings of guilt or hopelessness, criticisms from family members and friends, and/or changes in the relationship with the injured or ill individual. 

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