Nicole Neer(white woman with short dirty-blond hair) stands, smiling, with her hands in her pockets. She is wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt and smiling

Nicole interviewed me for her Spooniepreneur podcast a couple of years ago, and we’ve clicked. When she suggested collaborating by cross-posting on one another’s blogs, I jumped at the opportunity.

We both wrote about medical trauma from our own personal experiences. My post on her blog came out a few days ago, and Nicole and I will both be speaking at the Spoonie Entrepreneur Academy Virtual Summit next week. I hope you enjoy her explanation of how medical trauma physically impacts us!

If you’re living with a chronic illness, I can almost guarantee that you’ve experienced some type of medical trauma. So today I want to talk to you about the type of traumatic experiences we all have and how you can move through them to become the best advocate for your health care that you can be. 

You’re probably wondering who I am and why I know so much about trauma. I’m Nicole, a recovering social worker who now runs a virtual assistance agency. I had to step away from my work with at-risk children and their families when I became too sick to manage 60 hour work weeks and stressful situations. But I walked away from that career as an expert in the ways trauma impacts our ability to cope with what life throws our way.

For a lot of us, medical trauma starts with an appointment with our general practitioner. 

Managing my trauma response

A few weeks ago I had an appointment with my family physician, Dr. M.

Generally, these appointments are pretty productive. He listens and is always ready to help me find answers when I need them.

I’m incredibly grateful for this because it took three years and two other doctors to get here. 

My story may look similar to yours. I went through three years of declining health, two physicians who didn’t truly listen to me, and so many sleepless nights.

I was on 7 different antidepressants before I found two medications that have stabilized my mental health.

And along the way, I’ve tried diets, exercise, yoga, celery juice, and so many supplements I’ve lost count. 

white woman holds her face in her hands.  She is in her kitchen, leaning on her counter.
Doctor’s appointments can trigger a trauma response in many of us.

But worst were the appointments with doctors who couldn’t look past the fact that I am overweight and have more than one mental health disorder.

It took me three years to get a referral to a neurologist (and a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia) even though I’ve had balance and mobility issues for years.

I’ve walked out of more than one appointment in tears and have fired more than one doctor because they weren’t taking me seriously. 

And now my heart still races when I get close to my doctor’s office.

I get all sweaty and my anxiety makes it hard to take a normal breath.

I usually bring someone with me to the appointment because if something triggers me in the office I tend to freeze up and stop listening.

Why does this happen? The answer is simple – trauma. 

So let’s break down how you know that you’re re-experiencing trauma and how you can find healthy ways to cope with it.  

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

Understanding Your Adverse Childhood Experiences(ACEs)

Our ability to deal with trauma as an adult actually begins with the ways we were traumatized as a child.

Research has shown over and over that traumatic events which happen before we turn 17 lead to an increased risk for substance abuse issues, mental health problems, and chronic health issues. 

ACEs can be anything from your parents getting a divorce to having a loved one who is mentally ill to experiencing violence or neglect.

The more of these ACEs you have, the more at risk you are.

When you hear people in the mental health or social services world talk about resilience, they’ll probably bring up Adverse Childhood Experiences(ACEs).

Because the more ACEs someone has, the harder it is for them to overcome adult trauma.

Want to discover how many ACEs you’ve experienced? Click here to take a quiz. 

There’s also a lot of research that shows that these experiences can leave us more at risk for a whole host of chronic illnesses such as Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, sleep disorder, Hypertension, and many others.

Basically, your early experience can trigger chronic health issues and then leave you struggling to cope with them. 

How Trauma Shows Up in Our Bodies

Once we’ve experienced something traumatic (either as a child OR adult), it’s very easy to be re-triggered.

In other words, even though you’re not actually in the traumatic experience any longer, you react as if you’re experiencing it all over again.

The best way to tell if you’re feeling traumatized is to pay attention to what your body is telling you. 

When we experience any kind of trauma, our bodies go into what’s called a fight, flight or freeze response.

As your brain starts feeling triggered, it sends that information to place in your brain called the amygdala.

It’s the area of your brain that interprets sounds and images. And when it gets the information that something traumatic happened, it tells your hypothalamus you’re in danger. 

woman is seated with her face down and hands o her forehead.  She is upset, possibly crying.

The hypothalamus is in control of all of these involuntary things you do like breathing and beating your heart.

So the first thing that happens is that your heart starts racing and it’s hard to take a deep breath.

This triggers other reactions in your body, like making your senses sharper and releasing adrenaline and/or cortisol.

It can also cause you to freeze up if that’s what your body thinks will protect you.

Basically, your whole body is working to keep you safe. 

This explains the anxiety that happens when I walk into the doctor’s office.

My body perceives the appointment as a threat so the adrenaline starts pumping.

When we discuss something that calls back to past medical trauma, my body freezes and I have trouble retaining what the doctor says because I just want to get out of there. 

This trauma response doesn’t end when you leave the office either.

Common lingering symptoms include increased pain levels, overwhelming fatigue, issues with your blood pressure, and insomnia.

If you’ve experienced trauma in the medical setting, chances are that you already know how you’ll physically feel in the days leading up to and immediately after a medical appointment. 

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

Moving Past Your Trauma

I challenge you to spend some time over the next week paying attention to how your body reacts in stressful situations.

Does your heart start racing?

Do you start sweating?

Do you freeze up?

And most importantly, are you experiencing these reactions when you’re not stressed?

Two women sit talking.  One is the focus of the image,  the second is to the side of the camera, only visible in profile.
Having a professional to talk through your trauma with can be incredibly healing.

All of these are signs that your body is stuck in this stress response cycle. 

When you’re living with a lot of stress or trauma, it’s not uncommon for our bodies to become really vigilant about keeping us safe.

If you’re noticing this is happening, it can be really helpful to seek out support in helping you identify what has traumatized you in the past, how this trauma is showing up in your body today, and what coping skills will help you move forward.

This is true even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition. 

While treatment can include traditional talk therapy, there are many other treatment options out there too. Here are some options out there: 

Hypnotherapy

Personally, I’ve found hypnotherapy to be really helpful. Hypnosis is NOT like what you see on television or in movies. The therapist can’t make you cluck like a chicken or to do something you don’t want to. 

During hypnotherapy, your therapist will help you approach your trauma in a relaxed, focus state that allows you to see things objectively without those stress responses.

During a session, you’re able to reframe how you think and feel about these experiences so you can consciously change your behavior.

In my experience, I felt positive shifts after each session that helped me cope with past trauma in a healthier way. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

During EMDR, you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in small doses while your therapist directs your eye movements.

In other words, you’re re-experiencing the trauma while also having your attention diverted.

The more you do this, the more you’re able to think about those experiences without going into a fight, flight, or freeze response. 

This treatment works really well if you have specific traumatic experiences you need to work through.

For example, if you have post-traumatic stress disorder or have a traumatic brain injury from an accident, EMDR can help you work through the trauma of that experience. 

Virtual Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

If you’re more interested in talking through your traumatic experiences or disorders such as anxiety or depression, cognitive behavioral therapy is a well-established form of talk therapy.

CBT is built on the understanding that psychological problems have their root in how we think about things. If you can reframe those thoughts and build new coping skills, you can move through your trauma. 

I’ve found cognitive behavioral therapy to be very helpful. What’s really amazing is that there are many ways to work with a CBT trained therapist virtually.

Personally, I work with a therapist on Talkspace using text messages and one-on-one telemedicine visits. If you’re struggling with anxiety or phobias, I’ve also found this workbook super helpful.  

left side holds a picture of Alison gazing levelly at the camera.  To the right, white text reads "Medical care decisions feel overwhelming?" and in smaller brown text "Click here to learn about my medical care coaching".  The far right of the banner holds the Thriving While Disabled logo

How do I know what treatment is best for me? 

So much of any mental health treatment depends on your comfort level and situation.

If you’re struggling with symptoms that make it difficult to get out of the house, virtual therapy can allow you to get help when you feel up to it instead of making another appointment you have to reschedule when you’re not feeling well.

If your insurance plan doesn’t cover mental health treatment, this can also be a cost-effective way to get support. 

Treatments like hypnotherapy and EMDR are not always covered by insurance but I’ve also found that many providers having sliding scale fees.

If you live in a small town like me you’ll also probably have to travel to find a trained therapist.

For my hypnotherapy sessions, I had to drive over an hour. But it’s also important to keep in mind that these treatments are often very concentrated.

Often just 6-12 sessions are enough to give you real results. 

Just like you do with a new specialist or practitioner, do your homework.

It’s okay to ask friends or online communities for recommendations.

Creep on their website or social media channels.

And absolutely treat that first appointment as your “first date”.

If it’s not a great fit, it’s totally fine to move on until you find a therapist that works for you. 

The truth is that it’s not possible to just avoid common trauma triggers like going to the doctor. But you can build your toolbox of coping skills to help you identify when you’re triggered and to move through your body’s stress response in a healthy way. 

Nicole Neer(white woman with short dirty-blond hair) stands, smiling, with her hands in her pockets.  She is wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt and smiling

Nicole Neer is the founder and CEO of Bloom Admin Services, a full-service virtual support agency helping entrepreneurs to streamline their systems, amplify their authority, and launch their podcasts. She’s also a nationally recognized expert in entrepreneurship with chronic illness and the host of the Spooniepreneur Podcast, which takes people behind the scenes on how entrepreneurs from all walks of life balance illness and success. You can connect with Nicole on Instagram at @spooniepreneurpodcast. 

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6 Comments

  1. It’s nice to meet you, Nicole. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s such an important topic to discuss and I wish people were more aware of it in Taiwan. Mental health issues are still highly stigmatized in Taiwan because it’s part of the culture. I hope one of these days, doctors can start to take these things more seriously. I’ve been here since 2006 and you’re right. When you’re chronically ill with serious health problems, you’ve likely experienced medical trauma at least once!

    1. Mental health stigma is still around in the US too – there are WAY more people who need psychologists and psychiatrists than are available – it’s especially problematic that insurance companies are extra sloppy about mental health supports. I really appreciate Nicole’s mentioning specific treatments and ways to search up appropriate professionals because it can be really tough.

  2. I think most of us spoonies have experienced medical trauma to one degree or another sadly. Being dismissed or talked down to is hard to take, and often delays a diagnosis and treatment. I’ve been curious about hypnotherapy for a while, so I will look into it more!

    1. I’m actually trying hypnotherapy at the moment using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques! The person I’m working with is actually based in the UK – let me know if you’d like to connect with her.

  3. I can relate to the racing heart, sweating and anxiety. It’s plagued me my entire life, and I dread virtually every doctor’s visit! This is a really helpful post – I appreciate that you included quite a few actionable ideas. I’ve been reading about EMDR, and need to explore it further.

    1. I decided that EMDR isn’t the right treatment for me due to not having one specific Traumatic experience but many little traumas. I’ve heard great things about it though, especially for people who can point out one or two specific central traumas!

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