3 ways I respond to medical trauma to help complete a task

Medical trauma can have a profound impact on daily functioning

Charlene Marshall avatar

by Charlene Marshall |

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I am regularly subjected to stories of trauma. Part of my role as a therapist is holding space for clients to disclose difficult situations and helping them to process distressing events in their lives. Thankfully, in my experience, it seems that a growing number of people are becoming comfortable with discussing trauma and its impact on their mental health.

Historically, definitions of trauma excluded a lot of people experiencing distress. Many people used to assume that trauma was limited to only a major event, such as an assault, a car accident, or a homicide. Speaker Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, has worked to change those assumptions. He defines trauma as a “psychologically distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience, often involving a sense of intense fear, terror, and helplessness.” I appreciate this definition because it’s more inclusive and acknowledges medical trauma.

Since my diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a debilitating and life-threatening lung disease, I have experienced more hospitalizations than I’d like to admit. Many resulted from an acute, unexpected event that required interventions to stabilize my lungs, which caused me psychological distress. I feel validated by Perry’s definition of trauma, because I can now identify the effects of medical trauma in my daily life.

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Many people don’t understand the profound impact trauma can have on daily functioning. While it can prevent people from completing tasks at a conscious level, at a subconscious level, our brains remember traumatic experiences and may seek to avoid situations that remind us of them. This subconscious impact is what I have been experiencing as a result of a recent hospitalization from IPF.

In December, I was unexpectedly hospitalized with a lung infection that had a high risk of systemic involvement. This meant the infection could have spread to other organs or my bloodstream, which would’ve made it a lot harder to fight off. As a result, my medical team acted swiftly and aggressively, which included some invasive procedures. While I’ve mostly recovered nearly two months later, something in my subconscious was triggered because I can no longer give myself the subcutaneous injection that I’ve been self-administering since last fall.

Based on Perry’s definition of trauma, I know that past hospitalizations have caused me psychological distress. I believe my brain is remembering how they felt and is trying to protect me. I feel anxious before having to inject the medication, and no matter what I try, I can’t make myself do it. I’ve had to rely on my doctor to administer the last two doses. This is frustrating, because I’d never had a problem with it in the past. I believe this is an example of a subconscious response to medical trauma.

Have you experienced something similar? If so, you’ll likely relate to the frustration I feel.

In response, I started a conversation with a colleague about how to overcome this trauma response. As a result, I want to share some of those strategies in case you’ve found yourself in a similar situation as a result of medical interventions caused by IPF.

Following are three ways to address the responses to medical trauma:

Progressive exposure

Progressive exposure essentially involves breaking down a task into microsteps. In my experience of needing to self-administer an injection, it might look like sitting in the right position and arranging the space to be comfortable or safe. It might mean taking off the injection cap, applying the antiseptic, or bringing the needle to my skin without administering it. Repeating these microsteps while you’re in control helps the brain familiarize itself with them and feel a sense of safety, which is one of the most effective ways to respond to trauma.

Ask for help

While this may seem self-explanatory, it’s not always easy. In my experience, what I needed was not just someone to administer the drug, but also someone to go through the process with me. This meant I was partially in control of giving myself the medication but also didn’t risk doing it improperly if my brain suddenly decided to panic and stop mid-task.

Practice and mastery

Both progressive exposure and asking for help (specifically, doing something with you versus for you) are ways a patient can practice an experience that causes distress. That practice leads to mastery, which is an important part of feeling competent with a task.

Amid all of this, it’s important to practice self-compassion. Our bodies are designed to protect us, and a trauma response is doing just that. It’s a powerful thing to overcome and should never be viewed as intentionally being noncompliant. I needed a reminder to be gentle with myself because medical trauma is real and challenging to deal with.

Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.


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