The Hidden Trauma of Major Medical Problems

How to Navigate this Psychological Minefield

Being diagnosed with a major medical problem thrusts you into a world that most have had little preparation to cope with. It’s an intense ride filled with medical specialists, information, and recommendations that involve time-sensitive and high pressure decision-making.

When the initial crisis subsides and the team of medical professionals move on to their next case, patients are left wondering- what just happened to me? The aftermath of medical intervention is a vulnerable time.

As a psychotherapist and breast cancer survivor, I’ve experienced this first hand. The hidden trauma of life-threatening medical problems can create deep anguish when you’re not sure of how to deal with it.

To navigate the psychological minefield of major medical problems, the first step is to assess the impact and needs of your body, mind, spirit, and self. Let’s talk about why you want to consider all 4 of these areas to successfully address your needs.

1. The Body. The impact of a medical intervention is often visible to you and everyone around you. There are tests, scans, procedures, and perhaps scars that all come with data and information that you can see and feel. A plan for rehabilitation is often recommended once the crisis has stabilized, which is an important step.

However, what’s often not spoken about is the role the body plays in negotiating traumatic experiences. The stress of the experience is held inside of your body so that you can survive it. As things calm down, you can be blindsided when your body releases what it’s been holding onto.

2. The Mind. Unlike the body, the impact on your mind is much harder to assess. There’s no test tube of blood that can break down into percentages how much anxiety, depression, grief, or uncertainty you feel. Therapists have screening tools that measure by self report the intensity and frequency of mental health symptoms. While important, what the mind needs is the ability to work through what’s happened.

The mind plays a role in helping us survive traumatic experiences. It collects and codes information about your experience, so that it can take action in the future. Your mind can end up being consumed by the desire to feel in control. Without resolution of the trauma you’ve experienced, your mind can become a place where feeling at peace becomes nearly impossible.

3. The Spirit. Independent of how you personally define the spirit, the purpose is often the same. The spirit is a life force that helps you face uncertainty. It’s what brings us hope, and helps us to feel capable, confident, and connected. Your spirit is often tied to your values, purpose, and helps you to make sense of your life and the world around you.

Yet, when a major medical problem occurs, it rocks your sense of safety and security. Some experience this as a loss of faith, of the way things should be, or even a broken promise. All of these factors can challenge your relationship with your spirit at a time when you need it the most.

4. The Self. Your self is your identity- how you perceive who you are and the role you play in your life and the lives of others. A major medical problem can lead to temporary or permanent changes in how you live your life, your routine, your work, and how you take care of yourself and others. It’s not uncommon for people to fear that they’ll never feel like themselves again.

Allowing yourself to grieve is an important part of processing the losses you experience and how it changes your self-perception. It can be incredibly isolating to work through this kind of grief, and you feel guilty or ashamed. If this is happening for you, it’s a red flag that you need to take seriously.

As you can tell, navigating the psychological minefield of major medical problems is a complex process. What’s important to remember is that it’s not impossible. By taking time to slow down and create emotional space for reflecting, you can begin to understand what you need and from there find the support, resources, and guidance you need for healing.

Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor who is passionate about helping people live life boldly, no matter what kinds of obstacles they face. Learn more about her work at and subscribe to her Let’s talk Art Therapy; Tips, Tools, Strategies & Resources newsletter.



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