Emotional Patients: How to Maintain Professionalism


Published: 22 May 2016

Patients, caregivers and family members can often become emotional when confronted with the realities of medical care. As a nurse, it helps to know how to deal with these issues when they arise. This skill is an essential part of functioning as a nurse professionally. You may experience screaming, crying and even physical violence at the hands of patients or families. Although it doesn’t often go that far, it is still difficult to deal with someone who is quietly crying. It is all part of a nurse’s job.

Fortunately, you can equip yourself with techniques that can help you to deal with even the most emotional patient. Some of the techniques you may have learned in university, but they often don’t cover the particulars of this set of problems. While teachers are filling your head with medical knowledge, they sometimes forget the all-important human element that you will have to rely on when dealing with emotional patients. Experience is often the best teacher for cases like these, and that means calling on your ward supervisor for help when you are a new nurse.

Here are some tips for when you are confronted with an emotional patient.

Stay Calm

In the face of an emotional outburst the most important action is to stay calm. Even if the patient or family member is expressing their emotion toward you, you have to keep a cool head. It is difficult to calmly face this sort of emotion – and sometimes abuse – with calm, reasoned speaking. If you are someone who has a temper of their own, it may be even more difficult to control your own emotions. However, you need to rein in how you are feeling because exploding with your own emotion will only make the situation more volatile.

Staying calm may also mean removing yourself from the situation. If you feel yourself teetering on the edge of losing your cool, step out and get help. Professionalism is paramount in these situations, and you don’t want to break those rules. Take some deep breaths if you are unable to get away. Squeeze your hands tightly to help ground yourself in the face of the emotion. Above all, find a way to calm yourself that will keep you professional and able to help the patient or family member through the turmoil of emotions they are feeling.

emotional patients

Use Active Listening Techniques

You may be tempted to ask the person to calm down, but this is the last thing you want to do. In fact, it could make the situation worse since the person is in no shape to calm down. The words may only set them off. Instead, you want to attempt using active listening techniques. This simply means that you stay calm and listen to what the person is saying. One of the primary ways to do this is to help the person name their feeling. For instance, if they are angry, you could say, “It sounds like you are feeling angry. Is that right?” You may get a smart remark, but doing this several times can help the person get in touch with what is bothering them.

Another technique is reflection. You listen to the angry words coming from the patient or caregiver, and reflect back what they say. For instance, if they say, “You are a lousy nurse and this hospital is the worst I’ve ever been to,” the proper response would be, “So, you are saying that you are unhappy with your stay here. Is that correct?” You should also ask the person to tell you more. Get them talking about what is bothering them. Draw out exactly what set them off so that you know what you can do to help them get over their emotional distress. Using active listening can help diffuse many situations, and can even be used in situations that are not tense. Learning to be an active listener can make your communications with patients much stronger.

Get Support

Sometimes you can’t control the situation on your own. You may need back-up to get the patient or caregiver to calm down. Usually this means that you may have to get your ward supervisor to help with the emotional outburst. Other nurses can help too. In many cases just seeing your face is enough to set a person off. Another nurse can bring calm just because they are a different person with a different way of reacting to the patient. Getting support is a great way to deal with emotional people because it can take the pressure off you.

It is important to remember that it is no failure of your own when you need help from another nurse. Of course, you are doing the best you can, but patients and caregivers are usually not rational. It isn’t a reflection of you that the person had an emotional outburst or that you need help to make the situation better. This happens to both new and experienced nurses alike, and that is why nursing is a team profession. When emotions run high, fall back on the team and don’t feel ashamed about it.

Have tips of your own? Share them in the comments below.