Recovering from a severe burn is more than a journey through physical healing. Just as it takes time for wounds to heal, it can take time to adjust to the emotional impact of your injury. One of those effects may be changes in your appearance.
Part of my role as a psychologist at Temple Health is working with patients at the Temple Burn Center, home to the most advanced burn care available in the region. In addition to treating burns, we offer emotional and social support to help people manage the trauma they’ve experienced.
Here is what I think anyone who has suffered a serious burn should know about coping with an altered appearance.
Regaining confidence after a serious burn
As difficult as it may be at times, it is very important to get back out and connect with others as soon as you’re ready. Isolating yourself can get you emotionally “stuck” while you’re trying to heal, preventing you from adjusting to life again. The key is not to let your burn injury become the only factor as you move forward with your life.
That said, there are things you can do to prepare for interactions with other people, especially if you are worried about how they will react to changes in your appearance.
Use positive self-talk. Self-talk is when we make positive affirmations about ourselves in the form of short statements. A self-talk routine may help you to improve confidence and manage anxieties around social situations, like attending a gathering.
You should tailor your self-talk statements to you, but here are some that I encourage my patients to try, and see if it resonates with them:
- “I am strong and resilient.”
- “I can do this.”
- “I belong in this group of people.”
- “I’m a good person.”
Rehearse a response to questions about your burn. Other people are bound to ask you questions about your burns. But even if they don’t, it might make you feel better bringing it up yourself to lessen the anxiety. You may find it helps to practice explaining what happened.
You don’t have to go into a lot of detail about the accident if you don’t want to. Not everyone who asks questions about your burn injury is entitled to an answer, and even people with whom you might want to share information don’t need a response immediately. You can choose to focus on where you are in your recovery instead. For example, you might say something like, “I was in an accident and I got burned, but I was able to move through it,” or, “I’m doing really well, thank you.”
Try to find ways of talking about your injury that help you feel strong and in touch with your commitment to moving forward in a positive way. So when you rehearse your response, pay attention to how it makes you feel. Do you feel strong and resilient? Or do you feel passive and like you’re a victim?
Rehearse a conversation changer. You also need to know your limits and be comfortable with changing the subject when people ask inappropriate questions or questions you don’t feel like answering. I often tell my patients to change the direction of the conversation by asking the other person a question about themselves so the focus is no longer on you.
Write about your worries. I recommend using a journal to deal with anxieties around specific social activities, like attending an upcoming party or date. Here’s why: Often, our fears are vague, unfinished thoughts. By writing about them, we can define them better.
For example, you can write, “I’m afraid that [this situation] will happen.” Once you understand your concrete fear, you can actually problem-solve around it. Until then, your fear has a lot of power. But when you write the words down, you can look at that fear and say, “there is some legitimacy to it, but I have strategies for dealing with it.” Then, the power of that vague cloud of fear can start to dissipate.
Consider these other confidence-builders and reminders for making conversation that I also routinely recommend:
- Make eye contact. Look the other person in the eyes, but don’t stare for more than a few seconds. Engage them at eye level and then ask them a question like, “It’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it?” Eye contact is a basic human behavior. It’s a way of acknowledging that we are equals — that I see you and hear you. It helps us normalize our conversations.
- Strike a confident tone of voice. You should feel confident about your right to be who you are. Try not to enter a social situation with a chip on your shoulder, but also try to prevent yourself from being meek and afraid to talk. Speak with a confidence that is consistent with your affirming self-talk statements!
- Practice patience. People are naturally going to focus on anything that’s new or different about people they meet — whether that’s a tattoo, birthmark or a burn scar. That doesn’t necessarily translate to bad intent, no matter how awkward or clumsy the other person may seem. So, if you realize that you’re being impatient, make yourself aware of that. Tell yourself how you feel in your mind, such as “I’m being impatient,” or “ I’m aware that I’m being impatient.” If you make the thought more concrete and noticeable in your mind, you can actually feel more control over it and prevent it from being so “loud” in the back of your brain.
Overcoming emotions after a serious burn
Social interactions are a major challenge for burn survivors. But they aren’t the only challenges that can impede a recovery journey. Here is some more advice I share with my patients that can help them move forward with their lives:
Manage apprehensions about intimacy. Scars — whether visible or hidden by clothing — can raise worries about intimacy. If your scars cause somebody you are being intimate with to react in a hurtful or rejecting way, that isn’t about you — it’s about them.
Ultimately, the other person in a relationship needs to be able to see you for who you are. But first, you need to see yourself for who you are. Some people see their scar as a badge of resilience. If you wear it like a badge of resilience, then that’s how your intimate partner may see it, too.
Attend a support group. You may feel like you are the only one in the world who knows what it’s like to survive a bad burn. But it’s important to realize you’re not alone. Attending a support group of people who know what the burn survivor experience is like can be incredibly affirming.
The Burn Survivor Support Group at Temple meets virtually the second Wednesday of every month. As a support group participant, you get to meet other people who are dealing with similar feelings and experiences. And you may help somebody else by sharing what has helped you overcome a particular aspect of your injury.
Our group has other events throughout the year too. Recently, we held a poetry slam. To learn more about the Temple Burn Center support group, please contact Stephanie Velez Watson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider practicing meditation and yoga. When you meditate (one example is deep breathing) and do yoga, you learn to let distracting thoughts come and go without disrupting your focus on the present moment. That is a transferable skill. Once you learn it, you can use it to let go of worries and manage anxieties about your appearance and stay focused on getting on with your life.
Find strength in past traumas. I often ask my patients about past trauma experiences in their lives and how they’ve dealt with them. I do this to help them see their own resilience — the ability to bounce back from adversity. I try to help them access that resilience while they are dealing with the current trauma of their burn injury. As I tell my patients, every instance of adversity is also an instance of success.
Get help if you think you might have PTSD. A burn injury can bring on difficult feelings, all of which are normal. But if feelings such as depression and anxiety linger, talk to a doctor. You may be experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a burn injury.
You decide how you move forward
A severe burn, like any other traumatic experience, can be overwhelming initially. But as human beings, we cannot stay in a state of shock indefinitely. We begin to move forward, often by learning and adjusting a little at a time.
Eventually, we can begin to see what happened as a part of who we are. To paraphrase Viktor Frankl — neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor:
The greatest human freedom is the freedom to choose how to respond to any situation. No matter what, we have the power — the amazing power — to choose how we will respond. And nobody can take that away from us.
Get the best in burn care
At Temple, we have experience in all phases of burn care — including reconstructive care and rehabilitation. Our team includes plastic and reconstructive surgeons, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, and dedicated support staff. We work together to offer the most advanced burn care available, as well as emotional support to those recovering from burns.
If you have a non-urgent burn, you can schedule an appointment with a Temple Health burn care expert online or by calling 800-TEMPLE-MED.
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