Understanding and Healing from Medical Trauma
I was speaking with a friend recently who reminded me of the very real phenomenon of medical trauma. Medical trauma is an often-overlooked aspect of healthcare experiences, yet its impact can be profound and lasting. It can be a frightening diagnosis, a painful procedure, a negative interaction with a healthcare provider, or a series of distressing medical events. The emotional and psychological toll of medical trauma can linger long after the physical wounds have healed.
When my friend and I chatted, she and I were discussing surviving and recovering from Sepsis. Sepsis is a life-threatening immune response to an infection that quickly leads to tissue damage, organ failure and death. Part of her work at Begin Again Foundation is to spread awareness and help survivors of sepsis, ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome) and toxic shock syndrome. She reached out to ask how naturopathic and alternative medicine might help the 1.4 million yearly survivors here in the US. Turns out, fifty percent of sepsis survivors – over half a million people – will experience Post Sepsis Syndrome (PSS). PSS consists of varied physical and psychological symptoms that negatively impact their daily lives, all stemming from their medical trauma. Historically, the medical community hasn’t answered their needs or the needs of the countless others whose diagnosis is different, but who also bear the marks of trauma. However, there is an answer.
For example, in the case of sepsis, the Begin Again Foundation offers financial assistance and case management services. September is Sepsis Awareness Month and this September they will be launching a free resource library where survivors can find educational material to better understand and communicate with those around them and identify and connect with providers who will support them on their road to recovery. You can read some of the survivors stories here.
Defining Medical Trauma
Medical trauma refers to the emotional distress, fear, anxiety and downright post-traumatic stress that can result from a wide range of medical experiences. In the case of sepsis, this can be compounded by the severe stress of disability and losing limbs and permanent disfigurement. Not only did you have the event, but you have permanent reminders that you will never be the same.
But medical trauma is not limited to physically traumatic. It also encompasses the psychological toll of chronic illness, misdiagnoses, invasive procedures, or medical negligence. Individuals who have undergone medical trauma may experience symptoms that are typical of PTSD such as nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and avoidance behaviors related to medical settings. It also comes with mental health challenges that arise as a result of disability or the loss of independence.
What are some causes of medical trauma?
- Diagnosis / Prognosis Shock: Receiving a serious or life-changing diagnosis can be emotionally overwhelming. The sudden shift from a sense of normalcy to confronting a potentially life-altering condition can trigger intense feelings of fear, helplessness, and grief.
- Invasive Procedures and Treatments: Surgeries, painful treatments, or medical interventions that involve loss of control, physical discomfort, or a perception of danger can contribute to medical trauma.
- Communication Breakdown: Poor communication between healthcare providers and patients, inadequate information, or insensitive language can lead to misunderstandings, mistrust, and emotional distress.
- Negative Healthcare Interactions: Experiencing disrespect, discrimination, or dismissive behavior from healthcare professionals can exacerbate medical trauma and contribute to a breakdown of patient-provider relationships.
- Chronic Illness and Long-Term Treatment: The ongoing stress of managing a chronic illness, including frequent medical appointments, lifestyle adjustments, and uncertainty, can lead to cumulative medical trauma.
Effects of Medical Trauma
The effects of medical trauma can extend far beyond the immediate medical event, influencing mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. Some potential effects include:
- Psychological Impact: Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias related to medical settings can develop as a result of medical trauma.
- Avoidance Behavior: Individuals might avoid seeking medical care altogether due to the fear of reliving traumatic experiences or encountering similar distressing situations.
- Disrupted Coping Mechanisms: Coping strategies that were once effective may become compromised, potentially leading to unhealthy habits or substance abuse.
- Impact on Relationships: Medical trauma can strain relationships with family, friends, and healthcare providers as individuals struggle to communicate their emotions and needs.
Healing and Resilience
While the effects of medical trauma can be challenging, healing and resilience are possible. Here are some strategies individuals can consider:
- Seek Trauma-Informed Care: Therapists specializing in trauma can provide tools to process and cope with medical trauma, helping individuals regain a sense of control and emotional well-being.
- Open Communication: Initiating open conversations with healthcare providers about fears, expectations, and concerns will build a more supportive patient-provider relationship.
- Access to Resources: Educating oneself about medical conditions, treatments, and procedures can empower individuals to make informed decisions and alleviate anxiety.
- Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques can help manage anxiety and stress associated with medical experiences.
- Support Networks: Connecting with support groups or seeking guidance from peers who have undergone similar experiences can foster a sense of community and understanding.
Where can I find resources?
If you need resources, I encourage you to:
- Reach out to a provider that you trust. Many are connected with local agencies that can assist with food, employment, or free clinics, particularly in the larger urban areas.
- Make contact with one of the many national and international non-profits organizations that may be able to help in your specific case.
- Consider reaching out to local and national community support groups that are able to provide resources specific to your condition. They can also provide community, validation, and emotional support as you navigate your way through your experience.
- Consider mental health support be that through a counselor, licensed mental health provider or spiritual mentor. Please do not underestimate the need to address your mental heath!
Medical trauma is a complex and often unaddressed aspect of healthcare experiences that can have far-reaching effects on an individual’s well-being. Acknowledging its existence, understanding its causes and effects, and actively seeking healing and support are essential steps towards reclaiming control and resilience. By promoting open communication, empathy, and patient-centered care, we can work towards reducing medical trauma and fostering a more compassionate and healing healthcare environment.