By Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC

Medical trauma happens when you experience significant stress while undergoing medical care. It can occur when you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, like cancer. It may result from serious medical events, like heart attacks, or from invasive procedures, like surgeries and scans. Medical trauma can also come from how you felt about your interactions with the medical staff.

At the core of medical trauma is the experience of losing control, facing your mortality, and being deprived of feeling safe and secure. Even when you feel satisfied with the medical care you received, working through the traumatic stress you experienced is critical for your health and wellness.

Most patients do not receive adequate information about the psychological impact of medical trauma. This means that it’s often up to the patient to recognize when they are struggling. Here’s some common challenges that you need to address to heal emotionally.

Overcoming communication challenges. The brain plays a role, which is described below. However, by not having the information you need, it’s difficult to name what’s happening to you. This is why I advocate for therapists and social workers to be a part of the treatment team, because they can help you understand what’s happening.

Your brain separates conflicting thoughts and feelings. This compartmentalization lets you focus on survival and the immediate crisis. However, it complicates healing because of thoughts, feelings and memories not being stored together.

The information your brain flags as dangerous may not be directly related to what happened. The amygdala is the part of your brain that keeps you safe. It triggers your fight, flight, or freeze mode. To be prepared for future threats, the amygdala stores sensory information it gathered during the crisis. Each time you’re exposed to that sight, sound, smell, etc., you can have a strong reaction. To heal, your brain must discern what’s genuinely important, which is why processing your experience is so important.

To recover from traumatic experiences, your body, mind, and spirit need to release what’s been compartmentalized. Pacing is important so that you don’t go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This means you need to be aware of how your nervous system is doing, so that you can realize when it needs a break. In the therapy world, we call this titration. 

Here’s 3 reasons why Art Therapy helps you titrate and heal from medical trauma. 

Art Therapy is a form of non-verbal communication. It expresses thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or memories through color, shape, and form. By showing what’s happening inside, you decrease the pressure of trying to explain. Art can unlock the brain so that you can find the words you need. The result is that you feel more at ease, because you have greater clarity and capacity for communicating. 

Art Therapy is a mindfulness practice. It allows you to observe what’s happening inside as you sift through memories, thoughts, and feelings. The physical act of drawing or painting slows down your cognitive processing, decreasing the intensity of your emotional reactions. Giving yourself the opportunity to experience aspects of a traumatic experience in small doses allows you to titrate. This calms your nervous system and supports your ability to heal. 

Art Therapy helps you to find resolution and solutions. To learn and grow from traumatic experiences, you need to tell the story of what’s happened. Every significant life event influences how you see yourself, your relationships, the decisions you make, and how you prioritize what matters most. When you consciously work through what’s happened, you find the insight and understanding you need to move from surviving to thriving.

Cultivating mindfulness and storytelling practices are vital for healing from medical trauma. Each time you sit down to unpack your experience, you take a step towards reclaiming yourself and your life. This brings inner peace, fulfillment, and appreciation for how incredible you are.

Let’s Talk Art Therapy… Tips, Tools, Strategies & Resources

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