What is Medical Trauma?
edical trauma is something you hear in the disabled community a lot but rarely do we talk about what counts as medical trauma – and I think you might be surprised to learn how much actually does! **Trigger warning for this post just because of the mention of medical trauma, PTSD, COVID etc**
A form of PTSD
Medical trauma is a term used to describe what happens to people who have experienced difficult situations in a medical setting. This can be anything from being diagnosed with a chronic illness to having life-saving invasive treatments, and even giving birth. It’s another type of PTSD and whenever someone has to go back into a medical setting it can trigger not only unwanted thoughts and emotions but flashbacks, panic attacks and so much more.
Unfortunately, the uniformity of medical settings and the common training received by medical staff mean that even if you’re in a different building with different staff to where the initial trauma happened, it can feel like the same scenario all over again. The sights, sounds, and even smells of a medical setting can all be highly triggering and unfortunately can lead those with medical trauma to avoid accessing the right level care that they need.
Understanding your fear
Fear is designed to keep us safe but the issue comes when the thing your brain is terrified of has already happened. It has concrete evidence for its argument and so it becomes increasingly difficult to convince your brain (and body) that it won’t happen again. On top of that, if you have a chronic illness or disability you have no choice but to regularly go for treatments and when patients enter that medical setting again they are often re-traumatised and at worst the situation itself creates further trauma.
Covid restrictions, for example, made things particularly difficult with people often forced to attend appointments alone – leaving those with medical trauma facing appointments without someone by their side for support, and in many cases receiving terrible medical news alone. These restrictions (although designed to keep everyone safe) undoubtedly retraumatised many people, and left others with fresh medical traumas.
You are not alone
Very few medical professionals openly talk about these issues so those who suffer from them are often left feeling alone and without support. However, if a patient is lucky enough to have a good relationship with someone on their medical team, it can be worth asking about reducing exposure to triggers for trauma, i.e. being seen in a preferred room or building, or even ensuring windows are kept open to reduce the hospital ‘smell’. This isn’t an option everybody has, but for those who feel it’s possible it can make a big difference. Other people benefit from talking to friends and finding support outside of a medical setting, perhaps through a support group for others with similar instances of medical trauma.
Just know that if you are going through this you are not alone and it’s completely normal to be anxious about going back and getting further treatment. Your trauma is real and valid, and needing support when going through these things is completely OK.