Medical Trauma: When Health Problems or Treatment Causes Distress

At first, the concept of medical trauma may seem somewhat paradoxical. Healthcare professionals, after all, work diligently to assess and treat their patients. 

But what happens when the actual help is harmful? Or when the aftermath of a specific medical issue is so dire that it creates significant psychological distress? 

Medical trauma isn’t as commonly talked about as other types of trauma. However, its impact can leave a severe imprint on individuals and their loved ones. Here’s what you need to know. 

What Is Medical Trauma?

The definition of medical trauma is relatively broad. Medical trauma can refer to experiencing any life-threatening illness or event. In that sense, people who have heart attacks, strokes, cancer, severe allergies, or serious injuries may have medical trauma.

This type of medical trauma can exacerbate other physical and mental health symptoms. Medical issues can undoubtedly affect your quality of life. Some people may develop anxiety or depression symptoms due to their health status. 

Medical trauma can also encompass the residual distress that may emerge from the medical treatment itself. Some examples of this specific type of medical stress include:

  • Being discriminated against due to your age, ethnicity, or appearance.
  • Feeling like the professional didn’t address your concerns adequately.
  • Experiencing medical negligence during a procedure or appointment.
  • Undergoing more pain or discomfort than you anticipated.
  • Having your requests ignored or dismissed.

The trauma itself can range in severity. However, it’s certainly possible to feel traumatized by a certain provider or experience for a long time after the incident occurred. For example, many adults will recall instances of medical trauma that occurred during their early childhood.

What Are the Common Symptoms Associated With Medical Trauma?

In the immediate aftermath of medical trauma, you might feel more anxious or depressed than usual. The trauma disrupts your daily routine- subsequently, it’s reasonable to experience appetite, sleep, and relationship problems. 

As time goes on, the symptoms slowly reduce in intensity. You may still struggle with some changes, but you eventually adjust to a new sense of normalcy. 

However, in more severe cases, medical trauma symptoms often mimic symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms do not go away over time. In fact, they often progress and worsen, taking a significant toll on your daily functioning. 

Some of the more serious symptoms include:

  • Feeling so depressed that you can’t perform basic tasks.
  • Making impulsive life decisions.
  • Struggling with self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
  • Displaying extreme hypervigilance around others.
  • Feeling paranoid or distrustful, particularly around healthcare professionals.
  • Isolating from your usual support system.
  • Lacking interest in hobbies or relationships.
  • Experiencing ongoing intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares.
  • Feeling extremely hopeless or discouraged.

How Do You Cope With Medical Trauma?

There isn’t a single answer for coping with medical trauma. Instead, you may need to rely on several strategies to feel better.

Validate Your Feelings 

Your experiences and emotions are real. It’s valid to feel upset, angry, or afraid right now. The more you can embrace your authentic feelings, the more you can practice genuine self-compassion towards yourself.

Challenge Your Thoughts 

Although feelings are real, thoughts can be distorted. Anxiety and depression can twist our sense of reality and make us believe things that are relatively irrational or even harmful.

The next time you feel stuck on an unhelpful thought, try asking yourself, what would I tell my best friend right now? What evidence do I have to support that this claim is true or false? How accurate is this thought on a scale from 0-10?

Practice More Gratitude 

Gratitude can combat challenging trauma symptoms. Acknowledging your appreciation helps you maintain a bigger perspective in life. Being mindful of what’s going well allows you to feel more resilient when things get tough. 

Take Care of Yourself 

Stay connected to your physical and emotional needs right now. In other words, don’t let your own self down! 

As much as possible, try to prioritize self-care. That means eating well, staying physically active, getting enough sleep, and spending time with people who make you feel good.

Practice Relaxation Techniques 

Knowing how to ground yourself when you feel overwhelmed can reduce intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, flashbacks, and other anxiety symptoms. In addition, staying present allows you to feel calmer in daily life.

Relaxation can mean engaging in a formal meditation practice. But it can also be as simple as taking several deep breaths when you notice yourself feeling uneasy. 

Final Thoughts

Medical trauma can feel isolating and confusing. On the one hand, you may feel grateful (or even guilty) for surviving a dangerous emergency. But, on the other hand, you might struggle with ongoing anger, sadness, or shame about what you experienced.

Regardless of your specific circumstances, reaching out for support can be invaluable. Trauma is complex, but having a trusted professional to support and guide you during this time allows you to heal.

At Willow Counseling, we are here for you. We specialize in trauma, and we can help you feel more empowered in your journey. Contact us today to get started.

Willow Counseling, PLLC – Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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