When Mary* came into my office she had just completed 3 years of intravenous antibiotics for Lyme disease. Physically she was so much better, but the psychological impact of her experience had taken a toll. She was unable to swallow pills due to feelings of panic. She rarely left her home except for medical appointments and reported intrusive and frequent memories associated with being dismissed by the medical community at the onset of her diagnosis. Mary was unsure how she would enter the world again, worried that her time had passed and fearful she would ever step back into a normal day to day existence.
It's easy to understand that chronic illness can cause trauma. The feeling of being taken out of your day to day and being thrust into survival mode is traumatic enough. Medical trauma isn't just about the trauma of being sick. It includes trauma from treatments received. This isn't about some "big pharma is harming us all" propaganda. Medical trauma refers to the impact of medical procedures ranging from routine blood draws, to first time experiences in the ER to cancer patients living with catheters.
The idea that medical care could be uncomfortable or even painful is one thing, but some would say traumatic is a bit of a stretch. Unfortunately, medical trauma is very real.
What is Medical Trauma?
Trauma is a complex experience that researchers are still trying to fully understand. The clearest definition we have and that one I will reference in this blog is that of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The current definition is pretty extensive and can be found here.
Even this definition has shifted since it's development in 1980. What was once described primarily as an anxiety disorder is now categorized as a "trauma and stress related disorder" which includes additional descriptions such as angry outbursts and reckless behavior.
Trauma in the simplest terms is an emotional response to a stressful event. A stressful event Is generally understood as violence, an accident or natural disaster and often includes a perceived threat to one's life such as witnessing the death of another person. The truth is much more complex. We as individuals are the ones who determine whether or not an event is traumatic. Something that may be perceived as neutral (or even pleasurable) can be extremely stressful and even traumatic to another. A history of trauma increases our risk of being traumatized again in the future.
Barbara Ganzel, PhD, MSW, of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University, states “Medical traumas are psychological traumas that result from medical diagnosis and/or medical intervention. Threat of serious injury or threat to life due to illness is now encompassed within the DSM definition of psychological trauma. This means that medical patients can be evaluated as having illness-related trauma disorders.”
Tips For Overcoming Medical Trauma
When we have been through a traumatic experience, we are often delayed in realizing the impact of the experience. Many times those seeking treatment will explain that they had a "trigger event" that reminded them of their illness, which was now causing panic.
Acknowledge You Went Through Something Big (even if it doesn't feel that way) - I have spoken with many Lyme survivors outside the therapy office who became overwhelmed with emotion just by sharing their story with someone for the first time. Many people say have said things like: "I can't believe I'm getting so emotional. I didn't know it impacted me so much." or "I can't believe I'm still upset over this." If you or a loved one have been through a severe injury or life changing medical experience, simply becoming aware that medical procedures can have an intense impact is the first step.
Learn About Trauma - Even if you aren't interested in jumping into therapy right away, research shows that educating ourselves on the nature of mental health issues can reduce symptoms. Even reading articles and blogs such as this have the potential to educate and give us a bit of control over our emotions.
Find A Trauma-Focused Clinician You Trust - Research shows that when it comes to therapy, an important indicator of healing is the relationship made by you and your therapist. If you are having trouble finding a trusted clinician, keep looking. Trust is key in order for you to heal.(1) Trauma focused clinicians can be trained in many things from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).
Explore Self Help Techniques for Trauma - While, treatments for therapy can be invaluable and life-changing, there are many resources you can access on your own to find relief. We know that body oriented self care such as breath work and trauma informed yoga classes can be very helpful for overall stress reduction and symptom maintenance. Another great one I love (and used post Lyme) is Trauma Release Exercises. This simple set of movements can be done in the comfort of your home or with a practitioner. I suggest consulting with a professional to find a body oriented self help program that works best for you.
Prioritize Your Emotional Safety - If you have read my blogs before, you know I place an emphasis on emotional safety above all else. Emotional pain is as real as physical pain and sometimes it becomes unbearable. If you are feeling overwhelmed or out of control, reach out to someone for support. There is always someone available - You're not alone. Confidential help is available for free. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Provides help to those in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call 1-800-273-8255 Available 24 hours everyday
(1) Rapport: A Key to Treatment Success, December 2005, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7477414_Rapport_A_Key_to_Treatment_Success
*Mary is not a real client. I never use real client examples. She depicts a number of common symptoms I see in my practice.