Learning about the link between my medical trauma and PTSD

Are you familiar with the signs of PTSD? If not, June is a good month to start

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by Lara Govendo |

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As we bring attention to National PTSD Awareness Month this June, I want to shed light on my personal journey of recognizing the symptoms in case you’re in a similar boat.

After my double-lung transplant in 2017 due to cystic fibrosis (CF), I remember feeling off but couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Sometimes it crashed over me like a wave. Other times, the nauseating anxiety seeped into seemingly quiet moments.

I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I relax? Why was it so hard to focus on the present moment?

As a therapist, I wasn’t new to working with trauma, but I didn’t know the telltale signs in my own life. The sleepless nights, when my body felt like it was buzzing and then numb, weren’t normal, nor were they healthy.

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Identifying the problem

I had to do my own research about why I didn’t quite feel like myself. When I drilled down to the root cause, I was shocked to discover that I had experienced medical trauma. I’d never heard the word “trauma” linked to my health experiences before.

I also enlisted the help of a therapist who helped me name what was happening to me: I had all the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It didn’t seem possible in my mind, because I hadn’t fought in a war or anything. Everything I’d been through had seemed “normal” to me — the hospitalizations, the doctor appointments, the surgeries. How could any of that equate to a PTSD diagnosis?

According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD “is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event.” It can affect people of all ages, and the list of terrifying events that might cause it is extensive.

The therapist’s fresh perspective helped me understand that none of this was my fault. Suddenly, the symptoms I was experiencing made sense. Having them validated went a long way to starting the healing process.

Medical trauma is real, but in my case, it hadn’t previously been acknowledged by me or my healthcare providers. I didn’t know that what I was experiencing regularly with my health was traumatic. I had adopted the mentality that I had to power through all of the pain and anxiety with a smile.

The role of the nervous system

Our body’s nervous system doesn’t have a concept of time. It only knows when it does or doesn’t feel safe. With each traumatic event, my nervous system had learned that it had to constantly be on high alert to keep me alive. Since the brain had superimposed the past onto the present to protect me from threats, it was common for me to relive trauma.

Also, my nervous system didn’t have time to recover between medical events, because the trauma was continuous for several years. My health was unpredictable, which made my nervous system unable to trust the ability of my failing lungs to keep me alive. Being in a state of perpetual hypervigilance caused additional health problems, including with my mental health.

Nervous systems respond to trauma without us being consciously aware of it. It’s not a choice for it to happen, but rather an automatic function of the body designed to keep us safe from danger. That’s why we go into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode.

It’s important to tune in to how you’re feeling on every level. If you notice that you are triggered more easily than normal, are having difficulty sleeping, or aren’t participating in activities you enjoy, pay attention. There are several signs of PTSD, including frequent or intense mental health symptoms. It may be helpful to familiarize yourself with them and speak to a healthcare provider about it.

I found that hanging on to hope was key during the healing process. I’m currently developing a therapy program for people who have been through similar experiences, so stay tuned for updates.


Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today 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 Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, Bionews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.

Comments

Debbie Elle avatar

Debbie Elle

It’s also the parents and carers of those young CFers.. my grandson has 16 hospitalizations in his first year of life.. 6 in 11 weeks. He was under the care of pulmonary GI and Surgery so the overwhelming start to each in patient day with 3 full teams arriving in the room in as early as 6 am .. with no real understanding of the difficult task of getting a 6 month old to stay asleep when lights are turned on full, doors are banged open, voices are loud and teams crowd in. And then there are the blood draws, contrasts enemas, xrays, catheters, 4 hourly vitals, crying baby clutching 2 pacis and sucking double speed on a third.. ..

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