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Navigating Medical Trauma: Understanding and Coping with Healthcare-Related Distress

As a registered clinical counsellor specializing in chronic illness, I am well acquainted with the concept of “medical trauma.” Unfortunately, it is an all-too-common experience for individuals living with chronic conditions. In this blog post, we will delve into what medical trauma entails and explore strategies for navigating its impact.

What is Medical Trauma?

Medical Trauma is the psychological and emotional distress that an individual experiences as a result of encounters with the healthcare system. It can stem from various medical experiences, including procedures, surgeries, hospitalization, and interactions with healthcare professionals.  

One of the common factors that contribute to experiencing Healthcare- Related Distress in chronic illness patients is the experience of inadequate communication with healthcare professionals. Most patients will describe the experience of getting a diagnosis as very painful. Often dealing with debilitating symptoms for months or even years before obtaining official diagnoses. Unfortunately, in addition to the excruciatingly painful symptoms, chronic illness patients will also experience medical gaslighting. Poor communication between healthcare professionals and patients, feeling dismissed/invalidated, or lacking emotional support during medical encounters can further contribute to medical trauma. It is not uncommon for chronic illness patients to be told that it is all in their head or that their condition is actually not a big deal. 

Furthermore, managing chronic illnesses often involves ongoing interventions and frequent hospital visits. At times these interventions might cause additional pain or exacerbate symptoms. Similarly, I know from my experience with working with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) patients, that part of managing chronic illness might be accepting the need for visits to the emergency room. Unfortunately, the emergency departments in Canada are not set up to address the needs of chronic illness patients. These experiences can contribute to experiencing medical trauma and amplify a patient’s medical anxiety. 

Impact of Medical Trauma?

In the experience of a medical trauma, our body is already feeling vulnerable with overwhelming physical symptoms. Therefore, the experiences of invalidation, gaslighting, and lack of compassion will just create the perfect storm for heightened levels of anxiety. What does this look like in real life? You will notice hyper-vigilance, intrusive thoughts, and panic attacks in medical settings. You may even develop an aversion to medical settings, procedures, or any reminders of the events. For example, you might avoid the hospital or clinic where you experienced the medical trauma. While avoidance can be an effective coping mechanism, for individuals with chronic illnesses, avoiding medical settings is often impossible. So, how can we navigate the anxiety that follows experiencing medical trauma?

Understanding Your Anxiety

The first step in navigating medical trauma is to understand your anxiety and its underlying needs. Many clients I work with express feelings of “going crazy” or being “fundamentally broken” because of their heightened anxiety. They may struggle with the idea of undergoing necessary surgeries or procedures. At the same time, well-meaning people around them may urge them to seek medical help. As a result, they feel inadequate and frustrated with themselves. Often sharing that they know they need a check-up with their doctor but can’t get themselves to go to the clinic. 

It is important to recognize that your body is responding in a way that makes perfect sense given your experience of medical trauma. When you have experienced medical trauma, it is normal to constantly feel on edge and anxious. Your anxiety is trying to communicate that your body doesn’t feel safe here because the last time it was vulnerable in this space, it was not safe. The hyper-vigilance is trying to protect you from experiencing a similar medical trauma. These reactions are entirely understandable given your past encounters with medical professionals. 

Now you might argue that some of your experiences in medical settings and with medical professionals have been helpful and safe (at least I hope you’ve had some good experiences). The truth is, the anxious part of your brain will not focus on those moments because its sole purpose is to protect you. Consequently, it fixates on the instances when you felt unsafe to prevent similar occurrences from happening again. It becomes hyper-vigilant, searching for any sign that could potentially indicate danger.

If it wasn’t so painfully uncomfortable and problematic, one could argue that your anxiety is kind of sweet for trying to protect you and keep you safe from harm. If we understand our anxiety, we might begin to realize that the antidote is feeling safe. Therefore, creating external and internal safety is key to coping with medical anxiety.

Creating Safety

One effective way to create safety is by utilizing grounding techniques. These tools can help you manage anxiety symptoms:

5-4-3-2-1 exercise: Engage your senses by identifying and focusing on five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Breathing exercises: Practice deep breathing techniques to calm your nervous system and reduce anxiety. Focus on slow, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.

Self-soothing: Comfort yourself through self-soothing talk or touch. Imagine how you would comfort a frightened child and offer those same comforting words or gentle self-touch, such as placing your hand on your chest and focusing on the sensation and pressure as if you are being held.

Safe space visualization: Create a mental safe space that you can retreat to in times of distress. Picture a place where you feel completely safe and at ease, and imagine yourself being present in that space.

*A Word of Caution:

While the grounding tools and coping strategies mentioned in this post can be valuable in managing symptoms, it is crucial to acknowledge that experiencing medical trauma is a deeply complex issue. What works for one person may not work for another due to the individual nature of trauma and its effects. It is important to recognize that healing from medical trauma takes time and requires personalized support.

This blog post provides general strategies and insights to help you begin navigating your medical trauma. However, the journey toward healing and finding a sense of safety is unique for each individual. I would highly recommend that you reach out to a counsellor. They can provide the personalized guidance, therapeutic techniques, and ongoing assistance necessary to help you navigate and process your painful experiences.

Remember that healing from medical trauma is not a quick fix or an overnight cure. It is a journey that requires patience, self-compassion, and professional support. By working with a skilled therapist, you can gradually unravel the complexities of your medical trauma and develop tailored strategies to cope with its impact on your life. If you are ready to take the first step, book your first appointment.

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Sara Ahmadian

Coming from an immigrant family background herself, Sara specializes in working with clients through issues around identity and belonging and immigrant/racial identity. Sara offers counselling in both English and Farsi. She is also passionate about working with clients with chronic pain/illness to help them improve their quality of life. In her downtime, you can find Sara playing video games (especially RPGs) to relax!

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Searchlight Counselling provides in-person and virtual therapy for individuals and couples in Burnaby, Vancouver, and across British Columbia. Specializing in BIPOC & 2SLGBTQIA+.