Should Illness Be Considered A Trauma?

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Hello dear friends!

What comes to your mind when you hear the words, “trauma” or “PTSD”? Probably some visions of war, combat, sexual assault, or childhood abuse, right? That’s what our society has ingrained in us, what we are supposed to think of when we hear those words, and what we should think of as “real” or “legitimate” trauma. We’re talking huge, life-changing events that permanently scar people, put them in long-term therapy, cause them to self-medicate, and in some tragic cases, choose to take their own lives.

Perhaps you’ve been through some tough stuff in your life, but never wanted to claim the label of “trauma” or think of yourself that way. Maybe you find yourself jumpy or thrown into panic attacks at certain triggers, but refuse to say you have PTSD. And that’s totally understandable. Our culture still has many big taboos surrounding those terms and who “gets” to use them. But here’s my thought: a lot of us have serious and legitimate trauma and many of us have PTSD because of it. We’ve never been on the front lines of a war, seen our friends killed in front of us, or been held captive and tortured. But we have been through devastating illness, and yes, that is a form of trauma, often a chronic and long-lived trauma that many never escape from.

* A quick note: saying that someone with a chronic illness has experienced trauma or PTSD does NOT in any way minimize or devalue those who have served in battle, been abused or tortured, or survived any other heinous attack. No, it is not the same, but it is traumatic nonetheless. Nobody is trying to steal the spotlight here... 

Several years ago, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- the same manual that once listed homosexuality as a disease…) had stated that for PTSD to occur, the person had to have experienced a stressor that was 'outside the range of normal human experience'. They thankfully omitted that silly phrase, and now accept many more common forms of trauma as being seriously damaging to the psyche and eligible for diagnosis and treatment. Still, I know many practicing psychiatrists and therapists do not take these “common” occurrences as seriously as they should, and many of us chronically ill folks are left feeling like we didn’t suffer enough to deserve real trauma counseling or treatment.

But I’m just going to come out and say it: illness is traumatic.

Yes, I’ve lived a relatively sheltered and privileged life, and have never known the devastation of abuse or combat, but I have ongoing PTSD, especially surrounding the onset of my illness and my serious relapse several years afterward.

The American Psychiatric Association outlines several criteria for clinical diagnosis of PTSD, starting with the actual trauma itself. It says that you have either: experienced a traumatic event yourself, witnessed one, learned that someone close to you has, or you’ve been repeatedly exposed to trauma. I’d say many of us fall into the first category, and perhaps our caregivers and spouses fall into the third.

From there, it goes on to outline that you must experience one or more of the following for over one month after the trauma:

·      Reliving your trauma through painful memories or distressing mental images

·      Having nightmares about your trauma

·      Experiencing flashbacks to the actual trauma itself

·      Having severe emotional reactions to anything that reminds you of your trauma

I don’t know about you, but I have all of those…

Moving on, it also says you may experience any of these over one month after the traumatic event:

·      Avoiding situations or things that remind you of the traumatic event

·      Always feeling on guard and startling easily

·      Having trouble sleeping, relaxing, or concentrating

·      Losing interest in former fun activities and feeling disconnected from family and friends

·     Feeling a sense of numbness, irritability, or experiencing angry outbursts

·      Lots more…

When you look purely at the literature, it’s clear that all of us that live with debilitating or chronic illnesses have the potential for PTSD, and certainly many non-clinical manifestations of our trauma. The incredible amount of fear, isolation, anxiety, and hopelessness that accompanies illness can leave permanent scars and can be debilitating in and of itself!

So what can we do, as patients, as advocates, as healers?

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1. Well, first of all, let’s start talking about this issue and push for acknowledgement that chronic illnesses really truly are traumatic and can have lasting psychological and emotional consequences. Once the general public accepts this truth, we can have better visibility and treatment options! Educate your friends, family, and health providers.

2. Seek the appropriate help- there is no shame in seeing a therapist, counselor, or other psychological support professional. There are many that specialize in trauma and PTSD, and several are qualified to use therapies like EMDR. Search around in your area or within your insurance provider and start talking to someone who can really understand and help you move forward.

3. Know your triggers and learn to work with them. Certain places, smells, or physical feelings might set you off or send you into full-blown panic. Identify these things and start practicing techniques to get you through. This is a great place to use MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), and other yoga/pranayama practices.

4. Cut yourself some slack- seriously! It’s no joke having a chronic illness and there’s no need to wash over or minimize the terror you feel sometimes. Don’t try to slap on a smile and make yourself act a certain way- this won’t get at the root of the problem. Allow yourself to sit with your fears, and never punish yourself or harshly tell yourself to “just get over it”. You wouldn’t say those things to people with PTSD, so there’s no need to do that to yourself either.

5. Practice radical self-care, because this helps to lessen the feelings of hopelessness, fear, and depression (and you’re worth it!). Eat healthy foods, especially those that nourish your brain. Exercise as you are able, focusing on restorative and whole-body movement. Drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep, and treat yourself to luxurious bubble baths, a mug of hot cocoa, or an afternoon at the movies.

6. Surround yourself with support! Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and loved ones, especially when you are hurting or scared. Trauma and PTSD can still be taboo topics, but you might be surprised at the outpouring of love and support you’ll get when you are willing to be vulnerable. Make time to get together with people you like, and have a few good people that you know you can count on.


I know there is a lot more that can be said on this topic, but I’ll just wrap up here. I just thought it was worth writing this post and putting it out there, not only for myself, but people like me that may feel silenced or misunderstood about their illness-related trauma.

With the right mixture of love, support, and understanding, we can move forward to make the most out of our lives, despite the things that have happened to us. No matter what you’re struggling with right now, just know that you are not alone. We’re all on this healing adventure together.

~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~

If you are struggling with serious depression or suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available via phone and online chat 24/7. You can call 1-800-273-TALK or click here to go to their website.