October 01, 2019

Why am I anxious with bad memories after caregiving for my spouse in the ICU?

Q: My wife recently had a stay in the intensive care unit (ICU). It was hard on her, of course, but hard on me, as well. In the weeks since, I've felt very anxious and can't seem to shake the memories of what I saw and experienced. Is there an explanation?

A: It's possible that you may be experiencing a condition called post-intensive care syndrome-family (PICS-F). This is new or worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can occur in caregivers when a loved one is in the ICU, and persist well past the ICU experience. In a recent review of research, as many as 43% of caregivers of someone in the ICU had PICS-F symptoms six months after their family member was discharged from the hospital.

For a caregiver of someone in the ICU, it's a stressful time, there's a lot to worry and wonder about, and it can be overwhelming to make decisions on behalf of another person. In addition, it's tough to get good sleep, eat healthy and find time for physical activity. This physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation can take a toll on your health. Family members may continue to experience high stress levels after hospital discharge, especially as they provide direct care or participate in rehabilitation programs.

Some basic steps may decrease the risk of developing PICS-F. During a loved one's ICU stay, take time to rest and take care of yourself in terms of eating healthy, getting exercise and being social. Once a day, try to eat one meal away from the hospital, and find somewhere to see daylight to help your body keep a normal sleep cycle.

In addition, talk with your care team and ask any questions you have to better understand the situation. If you experience symptoms of PICS-F, discuss...