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Recognizing Signs of Medical Trauma When You Live with a Chronic Condition

Real Talk

June 24, 2022

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D76 Masahiro Ikeda/Getty Images

D76 Masahiro Ikeda/Getty Images

by Nia G.

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Jennifer Chesak

Fact Checked

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by Nia G.

•••••

Jennifer Chesak

Fact Checked

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Medical trauma is real but sometimes it can be hard to recognize.

Medical trauma impacts many people and can lead to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or even chronic pain.

Medical trauma is particularly common among people who live with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

The American Psychological Association refers to trauma as an emotional response to a particular event. Trauma can have long-term impacts and can lead to symptoms like flashbacks, changes in mood and personality, and physical symptoms.

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What is a traumatizing event?

Trauma often is referred to in regard to specific scenarios. Sometimes people who experience trauma, medical or otherwise may not believe that what they are experiencing is a reaction to trauma. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize that past experiences were traumatic.

The truth is that there isn’t just one situation that can be considered trauma. Anything that makes you feel afraid, invalidated, humiliated, trapped, ashamed, abandoned, or unsafe can be traumatic.

When you live with a long-term illness or disability, there are many situations that may be traumatic. Sometimes these situations occur in medical settings.

According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, some medical events that may result cause a trauma response include:

  • receiving a scary or life changing diagnosis
  • feeling repeatedly invalidated by medical professionals
  • undergoing difficult or complicated medical procedures
  • feeling like you’ve lost a sense of control
  • being undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for a prolonged period
  • spending a long time in the hospital
  • facing sudden or life threatening complications of your condition
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The challenge of recognizing trauma

Sometimes people experiencing trauma as a result of a medical experience may not recognize that that’s what’s happening.

Sometimes people believe that their traumatic experiences were just necessary parts of their medical treatment or that healthcare providers were just trying to do their jobs.

Medical experiences can be traumatizing even if healthcare providers did everything right.

Some signs you may have experienced medical trauma include:

  • feeling nervous, especially before a medical appointment
  • feeling depleted, numb or emotionally distressed after doctors’ visits (even if they went well)
  • having flashbacks to times when you were hospitalized or had medical procedures
  • questioning if your pain is bad enough to go to the doctor due to having your pain dismissed in the past
  • feeling the need to plan extensively for every medical visit in case something goes wrong
  • worrying that your symptoms are escalating or that you will need emergency treatment
  • dreading an upcoming doctor’s appointment visit or not feeling safe visiting the doctor alone

Addressing medical trauma

The thing about medical trauma, especially for those who live with chronic conditions, is that the traumatizing events may reoccur due to their medical needs and concerns.

Medical trauma is very real and can be a devastating and difficult problem to live with. Medical trauma can have impacts that affect people mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically.

For some people, it can be validating to know that what they’re experiencing is a form of trauma.

Understanding that your feelings stem from past trauma can help you process and better understand the symptoms you are experiencing. Recognizing medical trauma is an important first step in getting help to address it.

Some options for help include mental health professionals, support groups, and online communities.

It can also help to hear about the experiences of others.

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The bottom line

As it stands, the awareness and support available for people who have experienced medical trauma is lacking. There is still a need for greater mental health support for people who live with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Medical trauma is very real. If you’re experiencing the impacts of medical trauma, it’s important to know that it’s not your fault and that you are not alone.

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About the author

Nia G.

Nia is a chronic illness and disability advocate from the United Kingdom. Living with many conditions herself, Nia founded The Chronic Notebook platform on Instagram in 2019, now with 18K followers and growing. Since then, she has used The Chronic Notebook across online channels to spread awareness and educate others on issues around chronic illness and disability. In 2020, Nia won the ASUS Enter Your Voice Competition, receiving a grant to fund projects related to her work. Nia continues to work with charities and companies with illness and disability as their core focus.

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