After being critically ill, it may take up to 18 months for you to fully recover.

Being weak and having to put a lot of effort into doing simple things, such as getting dressed and moving about, can make you feel low for a while. You can also feel like you've lost your independence if you need a lot of help from other people at this early stage.

Your mood may change often and you may experience some of the following.

  • Feeling upset and tearful
  • Always feeling tired
  • Not being able to sleep properly
  • Not caring what you look like
  • Being quick-tempered and snappy
  • Feeling guilty for causing so much trouble and worry
  • Forgetting things
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Not understanding what has happened to you and how ill you have been
  • Feeling scared that you almost died
  • Worrying about getting ill again
  • Worrying about how long it's taking to recover

Your family and friends will be pleased to have you home, but they may not understand why you may feel sad. Talk to them about how you feel. Also, go to see your GP who may be able to offer you treatment or counselling to help you through this difficult time.

As you get better and start doing more, you will face new challenges. They can make you feel scared – try to keep calm and take slow, deep breaths.

After you have left the ICU you may experience a number of psychological symptoms. They could include the following.

  • Vivid dreams
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks (suddenly remembering, in vivid detail, a past experience)
  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety
  • A loss of confidence

Sometimes these symptoms can be triggered by a sound, smell or something you see. These usually disappear over time.

Sleep

You need regular sleep to keep your body healthy. It can take time to get back into a normal sleep routine. You may find it harder to fall asleep, or you may often wake during the night. If you have trouble sleeping, try a milky bedtime drink but avoid tea and coffee as the caffeine in them can keep you awake. Reading or listening to the radio before you go to sleep may also help. Your GP can give you advice if you have trouble sleeping, but things should return to normal as you become stronger and more active.

Understanding what has happened to you

People feel differently about their time in intensive care. For some the experience is no more worrying than any other stay in hospital. Some have no clear memory of it, or they may try to forget it. For others, being so ill can be a very traumatic experience and it may take time for them to come to terms with it afterwards.

The strong drugs and the treatment the ICU staff had to give you to help support your body, will have affected your body and mind. It is common for patients in an ICU to experience hallucinations, nightmares or dreams that can seem real and very frightening. At times, you may have felt slightly aware, but didn't know where you were or what was happening.

Hallucinations and paranoia

It's common for patients in an ICU to have hallucinations or nightmares. You may have had dreams or feelings of being tortured, trapped in bed or felt as if you were being held captive. This was probably caused by having drip lines and catheters inserted into your body to help support your body's normal functions and monitor your condition. The fear this causes can remain for weeks after you have been transferred to a general ward or discharged from hospital.

You may also have felt some paranoia as you tried to make sense of things when you were confused. This too normally passes with time. If going back to hospital for a follow-up appointment frightens you, take along someone you trust to reassure you.

In a few cases, patients (and their relatives) can have extreme symptoms of stress after their treatment in the ICU. This is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and is rare. Most people who have suffered from PTSD found that talking to a professional counsellor about their stay in hospital helps. You can ask your GP to refer you for counselling.

Things that may help you get over what happened

After leaving hospital you may have questions about your stay in the ICU. Some hospitals offer a follow-up clinic. This usually involves being invited back to the ICU you were in to look around, see some of the staff who looked after you and find out more about what happened to you. The idea of going back to the unit can be frightening and it may be some time until you feel ready to do it. However, it can be very helpful to see where you were and find out more about what happened to you.

You won't remember everything that happened to you in the ICU. Writing down what you can remember may help you to collect together your memories. You could try to remember something about each day you were in hospital to help make sense of the time you lost. It may help to ask your family and friends what they remember about it.

If your relatives or visitors kept a diary while you were in the ICU, reading it can help you understand what happened. It may take a while before you feel ready to read it, and it can be very emotional, but many patients who have read their relative's diary find it helps them understand what happened.

If it helps, take the time to understand the medical side of what happened to you. Staff at the follow-up clinic will be able to help with this or you can ask your GP about it.