Losing a limb is a life-altering experience. While some can jump in to getting used to their new body, others take a bit more time, which affects their relationships, work, and all other areas of life. It’s also important to note that different people respond differently to the loss of a limb. Hence, the path to emotional healing isn’t a straightforward and linear process everyone can follow.
If you or a loved one recently lost a limb, below, we break down the general milestones to watch out for on the journey to emotional healing.
Post-amputation emotional milestones
Most people right after an amputation surgery go through this tolerance phase first. They are hyper-focused on the present to survive the pain. However, this is the phase when new amputees may want to isolate, so refusing a peer visit is not unusual.
Whether the decision to amputate was elective or traumatic, most people have a grieving process after losing a limb. Although the initial reaction is to help them “snap out of it,” it’s important to realize that grieving is a normal response to losing a beloved or something important.
Grieving can be a non-linear, long-term process, so don’t be hard on yourself or a loved one for slipping back from time to time. There are a few things to help manage overwhelming feelings during this phase, including talking with a therapist or other amputees and journaling.
However, do watch out for depression. If the depression worsens, it’s best to get help from a mental health professional who can prescribe therapy or medications.
Once there is acceptance, people start becoming aware of their new reality. They will begin to think about the future implications of limb loss and how their roles and daily life will change.
During this phase, people begin adjusting to their new reality. This is when they regain control and awareness of their strengths. Their body image also begins to shift during this phase.
At this point, people begin establishing and maintaining new routines and reordering their priorities. They will also start doing things that matter to them and allow other issues besides limb loss to take up space in their minds.
This is the last step in emotional healing, but not everyone can get to this level. Many will stay at the Directing stage, and that’s okay. What matters is that they’re working towards living their lives again.
However, the ideal is to reach the point of thriving. This is when people live life to the fullest. Attaining this level means they have learned to trust themselves and others again. Some may even be role models or inspirations to others.
While the map above may seem straightforward, remember that the road toward emotional recovery can be bumpy. How a person responds to events happening to them is affected by one or a combination of the following factors:
- What is the patient’s age and health status?
- What was the cause of the limb loss?
- What is the level of amputation?
- How will the limb loss affect their finances?
- How do they cope with difficult situations?
- Do they have a support system?
- Can they quickly access the services they need?
- How can their living arrangements be modified to accommodate limb loss?
Depending on the patient’s coping mechanism, they could be affected by severe mental health issues.
Mental health issues
Acute Stress Disorder
Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) typically happens in the first month after a traumatic event. Symptoms include flashbacks, intrusive memories, avoidance, difficulty remembering the event, dissociation, inability to experience bright emotions, anxiety, irritability, and difficulty focusing or sleeping. But if the symptoms drag on beyond the first month, a mental health professional may assess the patient for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can happen to anyone who goes through a traumatic event, particularly a life-threatening one. The symptoms are similar to ASD, but the difference lies in the timing. While ASD can occur immediately after the event, PTSD occurs months after the traumatic event has transpired.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by chronic worry and irritability in multiple areas of life that seem to have no cause for at least six months. Symptoms include difficulty focusing, fatigue, insomnia, muscle tension, and restlessness. It’s important to note that GAD can occur in any recovery phase.
Depression after amputation is a fairly typical response. For some, depression will pass as they get used to their new body, but for others, it can be a persistent problem.
Patients with chronic depression after amputation should seek the support of a mental health professional. Support groups can also help ease depression as they provide emotional support. Some people may also need to take antidepressant medication, so it’s crucial to get professional advice.