About two years ago, I had a grand mal seizure in a ballet class. At the time, I brushed it off as a scary thing that had happened, and vowed to never go back to the studio where it went down because I was too embarrassed. Months went by before I could muster up the courage to go into a ballet studio for class, and when I did, I would get nervous and metaphorically choke in the middle of a combination because I was convinced it would happen again. So, I stayed away.
If you've ever had a traumatic health scare, you know the type of fear I'm talking about. I have a friend who went into anaphylactic shock when he was a kid after eating pine nuts, and now he can't go near pesto or anything even remotely green. My partner has had three knee injuries that resulted in surgeries, and refuses to step on a wet floor or icy sidewalk without some form of support. But, at what point should you seek help for a health issue that stresses you out?
It's common for people to be on high alert following a traumatic physical injury or medical incident. and, in some cases — depending on someone's age, history of past trauma, and the nature of the injury itself — these incidents can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), explains Michelle E. Flaum Hall, Ed.D., LPCC-s, clinical mental health specialist in trauma counseling, and associate professor in the department of counseling at Xavier University.
There's no telling how common PTSD is, because not everyone who experiences it will seek treatment, but anywhere between 4-25% of people will develop PTSD after a serious injury or medical incident, Dr. Hall says. "What's important to remember is that trauma is such a subjective experience — what may be traumatic for one person may not be for another," she says.
Everyone is different, but according to the DSM-5 (the manual doctors use to diagnose mental health disorders), to be officially diagnosed with PTSD, a person has to have been exposed to an experience in which there was actual or threatened death or injury, and develop symptoms and negative thoughts related to the trauma, Dr. Hall says. Symptoms can range from having nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive memories, to difficulty sleeping, irritability, isolation, and avoidance, she says.
It's common for people to avoid the activity that caused the incident, along with anything that reminds them of the event, explains Susanne Babbel, PhD, MFT, a trauma therapist in San Francisco. "They might avoid feelings, sensations, places, or anything else," she says. Even though there might not be a direct threat, when someone goes through trauma, the "imprint" of the experience, including anything related to it, can remain with them long after the event, Dr. Hall says. As you can imagine, avoidance can have a significant effect on people's lives, particularly when the traumatic event was related to medical care. "A person who experiences trauma in a medical setting or as a result of medical treatment may stop seeking health care altogether," she says.
If this sounds like you, it's important to see your doctor or health care provider, along with a mental health professional, so they can help treat you holistically, Dr. Hall says. The good news is that therapy can be hugely beneficial for people who have experienced medical trauma, she says. There are myriad types of counseling available for people with PTSD, including cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, somatic experiencing, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, she says. In addition to therapy, some people find that yoga, meditation, essential oils, Reiki, Tai Chi, and massage can help.
It's also super important to be patient with yourself throughout the healing process, Dr. Hall says. "Now more than ever, it will be critical that you learn how to be more self-compassionate," she says. Know that it's human to feel nervous about returning to an activity, but you should go at your own pace and take cues from your body about the timing of the process. Build a network of people (personal and professional) who support you and will help you. "PTSD not only affects the person struggling with it," she says. "It can have far-reaching effects in nearly every aspect of a person's life."
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.