What Is Medical Trauma?

Black woman in hospital bed looking sad

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When you think of trauma, you probably either think of one-time events like a car accident, or ongoing trauma, such as childhood abuse. You might not be as familiar with medical trauma.

Medical trauma refers to a patient's psychological and physiological response to a negative or traumatic experience in a medical setting. The experience may involve illness, injury, pain, invasive or frightening procedures, and/or distressing or dismissive medical treatment.

Just like any other trauma, the effects of medical trauma can be far-reaching, showing up mentally and in other physical symptoms. And while mainly the patients themselves are the ones affected by medical trauma, their caretakers or loved ones may also be affected. You may also be feeling disenfranchised grief—a sense like you don’t “deserve” to be grieving, because “other people have it worse” or because you survived.

Any trauma is deserving of help and healing, but medical trauma can be particularly challenging, as most people will have health concerns pop up that need to be addressed with a doctor. Ignoring medical care can lead to further complications which may just exacerbate the trauma.

Here's how to recognize if you might be facing medical trauma and how to deal with it.

Symptoms of Medical Trauma

The symptoms of medical trauma look similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of stimuli, including avoiding doctors in this case
  • Depression
  • Digestive issues
  • Emotional numbing
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Fearfulness
  • Flashbacks
  • Hypervigilance (being in an extremely heightened state of alertness)
  • Intense emotions
  • Intrusive thoughts, memories, and nightmares
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbances (such as sleeping too much or too little)

Trauma is when our nervous systems are overwhelmed by an event or events—it’s not that you “can’t get over it,” and it doesn’t matter how serious it was. 

What Causes Medical Trauma?

If you already deal with mental health issues—including PTSD from other trauma—you may be more vulnerable to medical trauma. But there are also particular diagnoses or situations often associated with medical trauma, which are listed below.

Birth

Giving birth can often be highly traumatic. In fact, up to 45% of new mothers have reported experiencing birth trauma. This can affect breastfeeding, the child’s birthday (as it becomes a triggering event), and even the decision about whether or not to have future children. Additionally, women who have experienced sexual abuse are prone to re-traumatization during the birth process.

There are three commonly reported birth traumas:

  • Emergency C-section: Not only are birth and surgery uniquely complex and potentially traumatic in their own ways, but the combination also magnifies this. Plus, the nature of a C-section being an emergency means lots of emotional changes all at once.
  • Obstetric violence: This is known as any time someone giving birth experiences mistreatment or disrespect of their rights, either emotionally or physically, including coercing them to do treatments they are not interested in. Forms of obstetric violence include non-consented care (forced procedures against their will), non-dignified care, physical abuse, non-confidential care, and discriminated care.
  • Infant in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU): Many mothers feel as though they have failed from the start if their infant needs to go into the NICU. Plus, it is an ongoing trauma as the parents continuously wait on test results and wait for the news that they will be able to bring their child home.

Cancer

It is more commonly known for PTSD to occur after a single life-threatening event (such as a shooting or car accident), but cancer is often associated with medical trauma and PTSD.

With an illness and treatment as challenging as cancer, though, it is not uncommon to deal with post-traumatic stress following cancer treatment, especially if a patient is worrying whether the cancer will come back.

Heart Attacks

One study showed that 1 in 8 heart attack survivors will develop PTSD following their cardiac event. With more than 1.4 million people per year now surviving heart attacks, that amounts to at least 150,000 people experiencing PTSD symptoms. PTSD appeared to be even more likely in those who clinically died but were resuscitated.

Intensive Care Unit

A stay in the intensive care unit (ICU) can be particularly traumatizing. For example, a patient might be dealing with confronting their mortality, they may be hooked up to various machines and coming in and out of consciousness, often to different faces each time.

It can also be difficult to communicate because of these factors, adding even more to the powerlessness one may be feeling. It is estimated that 25% of those who survive their ICU experiences will meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD, with many more still dealing with post-traumatic stress symptoms, even if those symptoms don't meet a PTSD diagnosis.

Cultural Considerations

Black women are at higher risk for birth trauma at nearly double the rate of White women. Despite her history of pulmonary embolisms placing her at high risk, even world-famous tennis player Serena Williams experienced birth trauma and near death due to medical staff not taking her seriously when she allegedly reported difficulty breathing.

Additionally, Black people have historically been used as test subjects in medicine. This has led to deeply embedded racial medical trauma. To compound that, Black patients are typically sent to inferior medical facilities than their White counterparts.

COVID-19

While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is affecting us all emotionally to some degree, if you were infected with the virus, you might be dealing with some post-traumatic stress symptoms. In addition, those who lost a loved one due to COVID-19 may also experience PTSD.

Trauma symptoms are triggered by reminders of painful memories, and as the pandemic drags on, it may seem like you can’t escape the reminders. If you were on a ventilator, that may have also been particularly traumatizing—especially if you see media reminders of that.

Medical Events

People who survive a life-threatening medical event, injury, or illness may be more likely to experience medical trauma, as are those who receive a serious diagnosis. Specific medical events such as being on dialysis, undergoing surgery or another procedure, or experiencing childhood health complications can result in medical trauma as well.

Any diagnosis or medical event can lead to medical trauma depending on the person who is receiving care, their emotional state, the treatment they are given by medical staff, and the environment in which they receive treatment. Trauma is subjective and there are a variety of factors that contribute to it.

Poor Treatment

Being treated poorly by healthcare providers can cause medical trauma as well, such as when medical staff isn't attentive or sensitive to a patient's needs or stress levels while interacting with them or performing procedures. Poor communication can increase a patient's stress levels as well and ultimately lead to medical trauma.

Another common cause of medical trauma is when a person is forced to receive a medical procedure without their consent.

Even the environment in which a person receives care can contribute to medical trauma. A patient can often feel uncomfortable when they're in a hospital or medical setting—there are unfamiliar faces, equipment, questions, and instructions they are receiving all at once, which can easily become overwhelming.

Who Experiences Medical Trauma?

While anyone can experience medical trauma, research shows that some people are at a higher risk.

People who are more likely to experience medical trauma include those with a history of anxiety, PTSD, trauma, or other mental-health concerns.

Anyone undergoing high levels of stress (at home, at work, at school, or within relationships) are more likely to experience medical trauma. In addition, women and people of color are at a higher risk of experiencing medical trauma.

How to Cope With Medical Trauma

If you're reading this and think that you might be dealing with medical trauma, know that you are not alone and that healing is possible. Here are some suggestions to support you on your journey of coping with medical trauma.

Recognize That Your Trauma Is Real

In many situations, survivors of trauma downplay their trauma. But it's important to recognize that your trauma is real and worthy of being acknowledged, validated, and tended to.

Many survivors of medical trauma struggle with believing it is real. They may wonder if they are being melodramatic or feel as if they should be able to get over it. However, your physical body and your emotions will indicate when trauma is still present—it is important to acknowledge trauma in order to begin the healing process.

Communicate With Your Doctors

If you are seeing a new doctor, be upfront with them that you are dealing with medical trauma, and that you would like them to explain to you exactly what treatment or medications they are prescribing so that you have a full understanding of what is going on.

Practice advocating for yourself by explaining how you prefer to be treated by a doctor or provider. Insist on being talked through any procedures they may perform. Try preparing for your appointment ahead of time by writing down symptoms you've been experiencing and any questions you have that you'd like answered.

Part of trauma is a lack of or loss of control, and gathering more information can help you take a bit of that power back. The same applies to existing doctors. If you feel dismissed after telling them this (or anything, really), it is OK to either tell them or look for a new doctor.

Bring Someone With You

If you can, see if you can find a supportive friend or family member to come with you to doctors’ appointments while you’re still dealing with medical trauma. They can help to soothe your fears, remind you of questions you might forget to ask, and help you remember information the doctor tells you.

You might want to plan to do something relaxing afterward, like taking a walk or getting your favorite coffee to reward yourself for making it through the appointment.

Therapy

As with other types of trauma, psychotherapy can be useful to help you process the experience. Some approaches therapists might use in treating medical trauma:

  • Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TFCBT)
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Neurofeedback
  • Narrative therapy
  • Somatic experiencing
  • Exposure therapy

Going through medical trauma is a difficult experience, but getting through it and reaching out for help shows your strength.

Complementary Practices

There are additional ways you can cope with medical trauma that you can practice on your own or in a supportive group setting. Yoga and tai chi, for instance, are practices that can reconnect the mind and body. This can help people who have experienced trauma cope with symptoms like depression and anxiety.

Yoga and tai chi also promote slow and deep breathing—another practice that can promote relaxation and mindfulness in people experiencing trauma.

Try to become familiar with your triggers as well. Knowing what stirs up your emotions related to your trauma can help you intervene, process your emotions, and plan for the prevention of specific triggers moving forward.

A Word From Verywell

Medical trauma may feel isolating and scary, but you're not alone and your feelings are valid. Seeking support can help you process and move forward from this trauma and heal.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer.