Many years ago before training to be a Psychotherapist, I worked as a Medical Secretary supporting various Consultants around the world and as a Fitness Professional helping people to rehab and recover from injuries and surgical procedures.

In these roles, I witnessed how patients feel vulnerable when they realise that they cannot control their circumstances, the limits of their bodies, or the medical expertise of others.

For the person being treated, this can be extremely stressful and it can leave them feeling helpless.

What is trauma?

Trauma is what happens in the nervous system.  During distressing events the nervous system goes into an automatic, instinctive survival response of fight, flight, or freeze.

It can happen to anyone in any distressing situation where they feel overwhelmed or do not have the resources to cope. 

Trauma is an incomplete biological activation – when your nervous system goes into one of these automatic instinctive survival states and has not fully discharged or reset, you can get stuck in that state. 

What is medical trauma? 

Medical trauma can be trauma related to medical events such as illnesses, injuries, childbirth, or types of treatment.

In these situations you may not always be able to act on your instinct to fight (physically push away or resist), to flee (get up and leave) or to freeze (become still and unresponsive).  This leaves your nervous system stuck in survival states.

Feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness contribute to our distress, alongside trying to understand medical jargon, spending time in hospital away from home, relying on others to help us or take care of us, taking medications and their side effects, unexpected complications, acute and chronic pain, or the stress related to making decisions around informed consent. 

Medical trauma is sometimes overlooked by the individual experiencing it, or by society, and healthcare professionals.  Why?  This may be due to the assumption that medical events and the care required are just a normal part of  life.

But studies show that medical trauma can be linked to symptoms of significant psychological distress including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. 

Each individual’s experience is unique depending on their various biological, psychological, and social factors.  Trauma is the nervous system’s response to a distressing or disturbing event and it is defined by a person’s subjective experience – the higher their existing levels of fight, flight or freeze are, the more overwhelming an individual’s ability to cope.  This means that 2 people undergoing the same medical procedure may leave the hospital with completely different effects on their mental health and wellbeing. 

Signs and symptoms of a medical trauma

Medical traumas can cause anxiety, shock or feeling numb, panic attacks, depression, grief, phobias, sensitivity to loud noises or sirens, nightmares, disrupted sleeping and eating routines, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of the event, stress at doctor’s appointments, gastrointestinal issues, chronic pain, and more.

Medical trauma could affect your daily routine, independence, ability to work, socialise, engage in relationships, financial situation, hobbies and much more.  All of the above may be life changing and impact your ability to feel safe.  This intensifies your psychological distress.

It may even have long-term impacts to your personal identity, beliefs and purpose.

How are you feeling after reading this? A little less alone? More understood? Relieved? Angry? This blog is just a brief outline of medical trauma. If you are looking for some more individualised guidance or someone who really understands the impact of medical trauma I am able to offer you 1:1 professional and specialised support to overcome your trauma symptoms.