Phone app can help traumatised health professionals

4 May 2021

Hospital staff around a bed trying to save the life of a patient

All those who are exposed to trauma can suffer from intrusive, recurring flashbacks. Among hospital staff, the problem is far more widespread than was previously known.

Can structured tasks in a smartphone app cure post-traumatic stress symptoms? A method that is currently being tested seeks to help health care professionals who, after a hard time during the pandemic, are haunted by upsetting, recurrent flashbacks.

Emily Holmes, Professor at the Department of
Psychology. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

“We’re looking into whether we can reduce suffering after grim, traumatic events. We’re devising tasks, including games, that the research subjects then perform on their phones ,’ says Emily Holmes, Professor at the Department of
Psychology and head of the study.

During the pandemic, the crying need for support and assistance for the very hard-pressed hospital staff has become evident. The large number of patients who have died in unpleasant circumstances has had profound traumatic repercussions, even among those who are used to stressful work with severely ill and dying patients. Many employees now suffer from distressing flashbacks that have seared into their minds and can crop up at any time. At worst, these can affect victims so often and with such a heavy impact as to govern their behaviour and lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“These insistent memories are incredibly brief, lasting only a split second, but in that instant a moment, or perhaps a patient’s face, is re-experienced. It may also be just a fragment of the moment, such as a curtain or empty bed. The brain tries to pick up a warning signal, and it returns both visually and as emotions,” Holmes says.

Intrusive, recurring flashbacks

All those who are exposed to trauma – that is, a stressful event where the person perceives a risk of, or witnesses, severe injury or death – can suffer from intrusive, recurring flashbacks. Among hospital staff, the problem is far more widespread than was previously known.

“A major study of several hundred intensive care staff in England showed a frequency of about 40%. Studies from England in which psychiatrists examined military personnel in war zones demonstrate that fewer than 10% develop PTSD,” Holmes says.

Her view is that the relatively high frequency of PTSD, compared with combat soldiers, among health professionals who have been working during the pandemic can be explained partly by the fact that there is no regulation of how long hospital staff are allowed to work under acute stress. Neither the management nor the staff are prepared for extreme, lasting peaks of stress and, unlike the military, health professionals lack several years’ training to cope with severe, prolonged mental pressure.

Good prognosis for recovery

However, the prognosis for recovery from PTSD is very good if the right treatment is implemented, although more knowledge of how to prevent this disorder is still needed. The method developed by Holmes and her research group has shown highly promising results in preventing the progression of PTSD.

“We’re attempting to find a way to calm the brain down again, so that it doesn’t store these terrible images as recurrent, intrusive memories. There’s no need to talk about the trauma in detail, and that distinguishes this method from other forms of psychotherapy. It’s simple, short and highly structured. The first time the procedure is used, it’s with us, so that the user can then understand what to do and can then do it unaided,” Holmes says.

Seeking new participants

To date, the study participants have been positive. Many have expressed the view that there is a great need for straightforward methods they can use on their own both to prevent and to help them deal with recurrent, distressing flashbacks. The study is in full swing and the researchers are seeking new participants.

“Since traumatic events occur all the time and everywhere in society, not just in the pandemic, having a tool that’s easy to use is important. We want to contribute something that’s both preventive and adaptive to new traumas,” Holmes says.

Register for the study

You can read more (in Swedish) about the study here. If you are a health professional who has worked during the COVID-19 pandemic and has intrusive flashbacks that recur at least twice a week, you can also register as a participant here.