What You'll Learn
- Medical PTSD
- Hypervigilance As A Trauma Response
- Perfectionism Ties To Trauma
- Regaining Control Over Our Anxiety & Threat Responses
Have you ever been in a medical situation where you felt completely powerless? Have you ever had decisions made about yours or your child's care and felt like your voice was not heard?? There are so many situations that can cause medical post traumatic stress syndrome, and these are just a couple.
Since so many mothers experience medical PTSD, I thought it would be a good idea to unpack what medical post traumatic stress syndrome really is and what we can do about it. Clinical psychologist Dr. Quincee Gideon is going to help us tease this out today. Trauma care is her speciality.
“In the simplest terms trauma is anything that happens too much and too fast and that can be in any category of life,” Dr. Quincee said. “A lot of people experience trauma. Of the people who experience trauma about 20% are going to have a reaction. A post-traumatic response.”
We can think about this in terms of the pandemic. The world shut down basically overnight and all of our resources were cut off. That was a lot really fast. Trauma can be anything—anything—that happens too much and too fast.
Trauma can be anything that happens too much and too fast.
A lot of this is about your background, upbringing, circumstances and ability to cope in the moment.Your experiences can’t be equally weighed, because we have different situations, circumstances, backgrounds, skills, and coping mechanisms.
Medical trauma takes the definition of trauma and ties it to the medical world. This can be a lot of things like a traumatic birthing experience, years of infertility treatments, a life changing diagnosis, an autoimmune disease that took forever to diagnose, or being told your symptoms are just anxiety coming out through your body.
“That medical record follows you,” Dr. Quincee said. She explained that a lot of people come into her office experiencing PTSD around their medical record, because once they’ve been diagnosed as psycho symptomatic every other doctor they try sees it too. It can be hard to get a correct diagnosis after that or even feel heard.
Dr. Quincee pointed out that doctors are like gatekeepers with access to all the specialized knowledge to make a diagnosis and the means to treat the problem. The rest of us only have our lived experience of how our bodies work and only interact with doctors when those bodies aren’t working right. But the medical community has no training in psychology, so sometimes when there are no obvious reasons for symptoms it’s human nature to dismiss them.
That’s a problem. We should be able to seek healthcare without being completely dismissed. Dr. Quincee said the medical community needs psychological training.
Women have a history of being stereotyped as histrionic, hormonal, and overreacting. So we’re showing up in front of a gatekeeper—the doctor—as a woman with this history that we’re unbelievable characters trying to get someone to believe our symptoms.
“In any type of trauma, your body is going to gear itself toward avoiding future trauma,” Dr. Quincee explained. “One of the things we’re going to do to avoid future trauma is to blame ourselves.” If we blame ourselves, we don’t have to go back to the doctor.
Hypervigilance As A Trauma Response
The hypervigilance that comes on after trauma is a reaction of our nervous system to help us avoid future trauma. “This is very similar to any time there is a trauma,” Dr. Quincee said. Sometimes this is okay, but other times we have to be able to live our lives. And most of us can’t just avoid going to any kind of medical clinic forever.
“Until we get to a place where we feel relatively safe in our bodies, in our relationships and in our support systems, our job will continue to be surviving,” Dr. Quincee said. We can’t thrive until we’re empowered enough to advocate for ourselves. “Everyone has personal spaces that can cultivate safety,” she explained.
A mental health professional can talk to you about your experience with trauma and help you create more safe spaces. But as a trauma survivor, your job is just to consider how you can feel more safe. This could mean sitting in your car for an extra couple of minutes or writing down your questions and making sure you get the answers to them before you leave.
As a trauma survivor, your job is just to consider how you can feel more safe.
“We have 3 primary nervous system responses,” Dr. Quincee said. The first 1 allows us to feel safe and social and this is a good place to be. “But trauma really puts us in 2 other nervous system responses,” she explained.
“One is the sympathetic nervous system response,” she said. This one is panicky. It’s job is to get us up and doing something. The other response we have is the dorsal vagus system which freezes you. Dr. Quincee referred to this response as playing possum, because it prevents you from taking action. It’s a numbing mechanism to help us feel less pain when we think we’re going to die.
“Trauma will move you between danger and life threat. We’re overactivated and we collapse,” Dr. Quincee explained. “We can cycle through those things, and that in itself can be traumatizing.”
If you’re in one of these states, you need to think about what you can do to feel safe again. One thing you can do is think about what you’re worried about that got you to this state.
Perfectionism Ties To Trauma
Perfectionism is about trying to avoid further trauma. Because if you can be perfect, you can prevent more pain.
Pete Walker’s book From Surviving To Thriving helps us understand that very small traumas add up over time and can create similar traumatic responses as the bigger ordeals we experience. This can create a perfectionistic state where we’re looking to stay busy all the time as a way to escape the trauma. “Anytime there is perfectionism, I always wonder what it is about your feelings, your internal state you’re trying to get away from,” Dr. Quincee said.
Very small traumas add up over time.
“In adulthood there is a lot more freedom to establish safety, understand your trauma, and get busy with thriving, but we have to go through some of those big steps,” she stated.
Regaining Control Over Our Anxiety & Threat Responses
For postpartum mothers, Dr. Quincee recommended choosing “the path of ease,” whatever that means for you. When you have a newborn and are experiencing postpartum depression and/or anxiety, everything is hard. There is no point in making it harder on yourself. If you need a break from your kids without feeling guilty, please take it. If you need medication or to go for a run, do whatever is going to make you feel best in this part of life.
A lot of new moms feel like they should be able to do ALL The Things! But you don’t have to. It’s okay to take a break or adjust your expectations of the day or even throughout the day.
Restrusting The Medical System
“I love the idea of 15 seconds of bravery,” Dr. Quincee said. That’s enough to get a question answered and get through a doctor’s appointment. Dr. Quincee has struggled with her own infertility journey, and when doctors come into the room she’s made a habit of saying, “Are you in a space where you can be supportive of me today? Because this has been hard on me.” This helps the doctor be more approachable as well as voicing your needs.
I love the idea of 15 seconds of bravery.
She has found this tactic gets her more time at appointments, she’s listened to better, and gets her questions answered. You can also use that 15 seconds of bravery after the appointment.
In addition to all the things we’ve talked about that could bring up a trauma response specifically as it relates to the medical world, Dr. Quincee mentioned there is a history of doctors not taking women seriously. This is so true, and it’s a long history.
We may have intergenerational trauma around the medical community.
If you feel like you still need support coping with trauma, the mother wound class is a great resource especially as it relates to sexism and intergenerational trauma.