Q: I’ve been hearing about medical trauma in the news and in my professional circles. What is it and how do I address it with my clients?
A: Since the pandemic, there’s been increasing public attention on the mental health impact of illness and hospitalization. Some of these experiences are best understood as medical trauma: a traumatic event related to the experience of pain, injury, illness, or medical intervention. Medical trauma falls under the umbrella of traumatic events, so our current understanding of trauma largely applies to these experiences. However, treating medical trauma requires additional considerations, which aren’t typically included in traditional trauma treatment.
Medical trauma is unique in that it’s both a psychological and physiological response. Although all trauma lives in the body, medical traumas are perceived by the sufferer as ongoing events with somatic origins. They’re triggered whenever attention is directed toward the body. According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, it might be caused by a sudden or life-threatening illness or injury, treatment for that illness or injury, feelings of shock or loss of control after a diagnosis, life-altering complications or unexpected medical intervention, poor or disruptive hospital conditions, or perceived or actual mistreatment by healthcare providers.
Addressing the characteristics of medical trauma and its effects requires…