The Unspoken Struggles of Medical Trauma
“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness,” – Dr. Peter A. Levine
The Unspoken Struggles of Medical Trauma: When Routine Medical Procedures Don’t Result in Routine Mental Health Struggles
Earlier this year I went through a medical procedure. Even though it was necessary for my health and in the medical community is considered a fairly routine procedure, this procedure ended up being traumatic to me. In the modern world, many of us have medical problems that require undergoing medical procedures. While it is a blessing that we have modern advanced medicine to treat us of many different ailments, we often overlook how these procedures, as routine as they may be to the doctors, can be traumatic to our body and leave us with unprocessed emotions.
The medical procedure itself went smoothly but the healing process was painful. For the doctor herself, it was a simple procedure but for me my body didn’t heal as it was “supposed to.” After the procedure, I had one urgent outpatient visit and two back-to-back emergency room visits because of complications that “rarely happened.” However, when these complications did happen, I felt ashamed. Why would that happen to me when my doctor said it was supposed to be a simple procedure that rarely has complications? I was hesitant to get medical treatment and felt the need to defend myself when I finally did because “complications shouldn’t happen.” I thought this meant something was wrong with my body.
I have worked with a lot of clients who struggle with medical conditions and problems where the doctors have not figured out the cause of their pain or determined a course of treatment. In these situations, clients often feel that they need to explain themselves or justify themselves when seeking the medical care they need. There is also a psychological burden that my clients carry of feeling that they need to defend themselves in every encounter with a medical provider.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital emergency departments had stricter rules and limitations. For me, when I went to the emergency room, my husband was not allowed to be with me until I got my own room. I sat in the corner of the waiting room sobbing with my mask on. I felt so helpless. At my most vulnerable moment, I felt so alone. Struggling with health issues is one of the most vulnerable moments that we as humans experience. When our support is taken away from us, many of us with attachment issues can have those attachment wounds from the past resurface.
The fact that my body took longer than other people to heal was frustrating. I had to limit my physical activities and couldn’t handle simple tasks (i.e walking, bending, lifting) for almost a month. I am always an active person but I was not even allowed to do gardening, which is a passion of mine. It was more than just the physical limitations though. The deeper issue was losing my sense of being a capable, independent person. During this time my insecurities manifested and I was having a hard time dealing with not being able to take care of myself. Being so physically limited brought up strong feelings of uselessness and unworthiness. I felt like a burden to my family and it was depressing feeling so unproductive.
You never know when something in life will have a deep psychological impact. I never thought a simple medical procedure would bring up all these powerful emotions - shame, helplessness and unworthiness. Even though I have spent years as a therapist myself, it took me a lot of time and self-reflection to understand the impact that medical trauma had on my body and mind. Acknowledgment is the first step of healing. Once I was able to recognize the impact on me, I was able to process them through my personal somatic experiencing sessions. It was a humbling experience to go through trauma from a medical procedure and receive healing from it. People go through medical procedures every day. Many times there are no complications and we continue our lives but sometimes these procedures have physical and mental impacts that linger with us.
While going through medical trauma has obvious negative effects on us it can also be an opportunity for healing and personal growth. The first step and a very important step is being forgiving of ourselves. While other people may question us for working through unprocessed feelings from trauma even after the physical illness is cured, we need to understand that the mind also needs to heal.
The ability to process the negative impacts of medical trauma can strengthen our resilience. There are many psychotherapy approaches to address these mental struggles from a somatic perspective, an emotional perspective and a cognitive perspective. Once we accept that we have unprocessed feelings that need resolution even after our illness is treated, it is possible to work through these emotions holistically.
Embracing the limitations of being a human expands our humility. Honoring our body’s healing process brings a new perspective of our health and wellbeing. Embodying, processing and accepting the vulnerable emotions that come from a medical trauma ultimately strengthens our capacity to manage future life stressors. If there is one lesson I want to impart from my own experience, it is to not be afraid to ask for support when you encounter medical trauma. Do not be ashamed. There is a community out there that can help you.