How Can I Heal From Medical Trauma?

Ask a Social Worker: How Can I Heal From Medical Trauma?

Advice on how to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder that’s related to a medical event.

Ask a Social Worker is a monthly column featuring questions from the community and answers from members of NHF’s Social Work Working Group. If you have questions for our social workers, send them to [email protected].


Dear Amy and Amanda,

I am finally starting to accept that I have experienced medical trauma. Can a social worker help me process and heal from this type of trauma? What does that process entail? 

You are not alone in how you are feeling, and it’s good that you are reaching out to better understand how to process your experiences. 

It is very common for patients to have some difficult reactions in the days, weeks, months, or even years following medical trauma, but it is not always easy to make the connection between experiences and how they affect us in the long term. It takes hard work and bravery to stick with it. 

According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, symptoms of PTSD resulting from medical trauma may look like:

  • Persistent, intrusive thoughts or memories of aspects of the medical event (replaying memories)
  • Significant distress when confronted with reminders of the medical trauma (for example, upcoming medical appointments)
  • Disruptions in treatment adherence due to trauma-related avoidance
  • Overutilization of health care due to hypervigilance 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to challenging medical experiences is an emerging theme in research. In 2021, we, along with Kaitlin Barnett, LCSW, and other colleagues, sought to establish the prevalence of PTSD among those with hemophilia A and B. Our study revealed that the prevalence of PTSD among adults with hemophilia is roughly three times higher than rates of PTSD experienced in the general population at any given point in time. Because of the potentially life-threatening nature of living with a bleeding disorder as well as the associated loss of control and complexity of treatments, it makes sense that medical experiences may leave a long-lasting effect on those in our community. 

Talking to your hemophilia treatment center (HTC) social worker would be a great place to start, as social workers are trained to help people with emotional healing and coping. Together, the two of you may determine that you would benefit from additional support from a trauma therapist, support group, or by connecting with others with similar experiences. Specific areas of focus may be processing the sensory memories, coping with changes in function or mood, identifying triggers, and normalizing the experience. 

In the meantime, there are several ways to cope: Talk about what happened, use deep breathing strategies, take time to adjust to your reactions, focus on healthy habits (diet, exercise, sleep), and educate yourself on what medical trauma is and what it looks like. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies has published a helpful resource about medical trauma

— Amy Wilson, MSW, LICSW, ACM

Wilson is a social worker at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bleeding and Clotting Disorders in Minneapolis and the chair of the Social Work Working Group. 

— Amanda Stahl, MSW, LICSW

Stahl works at the Boston Hemophilia Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and is a member of the Social Work Working Group.