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What is medical trauma or medical PTSD?

Updated: May 25






Many people have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD in relation to combat veterans or survivors of abuse, however medical PTSD or medical trauma is less well known. Coping with a medical condition or chronic illness is stressful and challenging, however the threat of life and the treatments involved can at times provoke severe anxiety, depression, and even trauma.


How is medical trauma caused?

Any trauma is caused by a terrible event such an accident, abuse, or even natural disaster. In regard to medical trauma, the unexpected diagnosis, medical procedures, physical illness, debilitation, as well as hospital admissions can all impact and provoke a trauma response. At times medical conditions and chronic illness can also affect multiple aspects of a person’s life and can be a destabilizing experience many individuals face. Medical conditions and chronic illness may also impact one’s level of independence, ability to work, possibility of having children, and dynamics in relationships, which may also effect a person's emotional and mental well-being.






From Social Work Today, Barbara Ganzel, PhD, MSW at Cornell University states “medical traumas are psychological traumas that result from medical diagnosis and/or medical intervention. Threat of serious injury or threat to life due to illness is now encompassed within the DSM definition of psychological trauma.” Therefore both the diagnosis and the treatment can cause trauma to the individual coping with such health concerns.


What are the symptoms of medical trauma?

The symptoms for medical trauma are similar to those of PTSD caused by other traumatic events. Some emotional responses as indicated by the DSM-V are: unpredictable emotions, intrusive thoughts, avoidance behavior, anxiety, persistent and negative beliefs, distorted thoughts about the cause or consequence of the traumatic event, emotional numbing, irritability, and hypervigilance.




What are the treatment options for medical trauma or PTSD?

Like PTSD caused by other traumatic events, therapy can be beneficial in order for people to cope and process their trauma. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT has been proven to be effective in altering automatic thoughts to change moods and behaviors. Cognitive Processing Therapy or CPT is a CBT based therapy, but it was developed specifically for individuals with trauma. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is psychotherapy technique where the therapist directs your eyes movements while you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses.


Many individuals also find alternative treatments such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation as effective strategies to cope with medical trauma as well.


Despite the challenges of medical trauma, there is hope that through supportive therapy individuals can improve their symptoms and quality of life. Medical PTSD may not be as well known, however together we can advocate and support those struggling with medical trauma. Contact Kristin to learn more about CBT, CPT, and mindfulness practices to help you cope with your medical trauma.


***The ideas, concepts, and opinions expressed in all Living Openhearted posts are intended to be used for educational purposes only. The author and publisher are not rendering medical advice of any kind, nor are intended to replace medical advice, nor to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any disease, condition, illness, or injury. Authors and publisher claim no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or damage as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material.






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