Medical trauma is defined as the psychological or physiological response to a traumatic experience in a medical setting. Some of the reasons people develop medical trauma can include going through a frightening or painful experience, like a complicated birth or major illness; experiencing medical malpractice, such as a botched surgery or harmful treatment; or being dismissed or belittled while seeking medical care.
“Any type of medical procedure would have the potential to traumatize if you didn’t know what was going on,” said Melissa Goldberg-Mintz, a psychologist and author of the book Has Your Child Been Traumatized?: How to Know and What to Do to Promote Healing and Recovery. “Pain can be a big element. It can be really frightening.”
In her practice, Goldberg-Mintz sees a lot of people who developed medical trauma due to a complicated birth, and children who develop medical trauma due to not knowing what is going on. “When they are so young, we try to explain and prepare them the best we can, but when they’re little, it can be hard to grasp,” Goldberg-Mintz said.
Trauma can develop after an adverse event
Trauma can develop after an adverse event. “Things can happen very really fast, and they can be scary and painful,” Goldberg-Mintz said. For many people, it’s the feeling of losing control, combined with fear and pain, that is so terrifying. However, although trauma can develop after such an event, it doesn’t always.
Instead, in those first few weeks after the event, it’s normal to have a wide range of emotions about what happened, like fear, sadness, or anger. “In the early stages, what I hear the most is that it feels very surreal, but not in a good way,” said Jennifer Kowalski, a licensed professional counselor at Thriveworks. “There is a very distinct ‘before-and-after’ the event, where life has essentially changed forever.”
In the weeks following what happened, there is often a period where the body and brain are both adjusting. “You may have to deal with it a little bit over time,” Kowalski said. “Your brain has this tremendous way of coping, where it sort of tucks it away a little bit. Your body might be experiencing, you might be crying, shaking, but you are not quite grasping the reality of the situation. Little by little, it starts to seep in. That’s the very early stages of it, and that’s where it really needs to be dealt with.”
The issue is when these emotions persist and start interfering with living a full life. “You want to get the help you need at that point, otherwise, you are going to continue to ruminate about it, you are going to be stuck in that moment, and aren’t going to necessarily be able to process what has happened,” Kowalski said.
Avoidance is a part of the trauma response
Part of the trauma response is avoidance. “It’s your body’s natural response, that it wants to keep you safe,” Goldberg-Mintz said. In the context of medical trauma, this can get complicated, as going to the doctor is not an everyday event, while avoiding routine preventive care can have a long-term, negative effect. “It’s a lot easier to avoid medical situations,” Goldberg-Mintz said.
When it comes to avoidance, the main strategy for dealing with such fears is graded exposure therapy, where a person finds ways of gradually confronting those fears in a controlled setting.
“They need to feel challenged, but safe,” Kowalski said. For example, this could take the form of driving to the doctor’s office and parking, sitting in the waiting room, or doing a telehealth appointment. Other strategies include talking through various scenarios that might come up at the doctor’s office and coming up with coping strategies, such as practicing deep breathing while getting a shot.
It also helps to recruit a trusted family member or friend who can help you navigate these situations. “If something gets scary or goes wrong, this can be someone who can be more objective and advocate for you in that situation,” Goldberg-Mintz said.
When to seek therapy
For people who have experienced medical trauma, it can be helpful to talk about their experience. For some people, it may be enough to speak with a trusted family member or friend; for others, they may need to seek professional help. “When it gets to a point that it’s seriously affecting your life, that’s when it really qualifies as PTSD,” Goldberg-Mintz said.
In terms of therapy, some of the more common types for treating PTSD include graded exposure therapy, EMDR, and cognitive behavioural therapy. Graded exposure therapy works by exposing a person to a traumatic trigger in a safe and controlled environment. With EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), “they have found that when we move our eyes in a certain way, our brains are able to apply a different way of thinking to traumatic memories,” Kowalski said. Meanwhile, cognitive behavioural therapy helps people process and reframe their experiences. “It’s a matter of finding the right way to cope and process what happened,” Kowalski said.
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