One glance into the waiting room told me we were in trouble.
I’d accompanied a friend to a dental appointment at a new office. She hadn’t had her teeth worked on in years, and because this appointment had been scheduled quickly, we hadn’t done due diligence and checked out the office for trauma triggers.
Triggers can be smells, sights, sounds, sensations, locations, or other sensory stimulation that causes a person to dissociate (zone out), have a panic, anxiety attack, or flashback, or be caught off guard by some other trauma coping mechanism.
Rational explanations (For instance, “This bright light isn’t going to hurt you.”) don’t help calm those with triggers.
If you struggle with trauma, you know it’s best to know your triggers and try to prepare for your environment in advance.
On this visit, we walked into an office that I immediately identified as highly triggering for my friend. So what should we have done? What can you do to help reduce the stress of medical visits or other public outings?
Ask your medical provider if they provide trauma-informed care.
Trauma-informed care is patient-centered and allows patients to participate in decision-making. Staff are trained in delivering care tailored to those who have experienced trauma. For instance, they may offer a warm-up visit, ask permission before touching, streamline the number of procedures, and make reasonable concessions to accommodate patients’ anxieties.
Visit the office in advance.
Is it overly crowded, noisy? Is the presence of small children a factor? Do you detect triggering smells (For me the scent of hospital disinfectant is triggering.) You know your triggers–do you observe anything that will present a problem.
Write a letter.
It’s important for your medical providers to know your medical history, which includes your history of trauma. Try to keep the relevant details to one page. You should feel comfortable advocating (not demanding) for your self or having a medical advocate represent you and requesting reasonable accommodations. These might include
- waiting in your car instead of a crowded waiting room. Staff can simply text you or call when it’s time to come in.
- waiting in empty exam rooms or avoiding hospital gowns. Hospital gowns can be triggering for many people. While this may not bother many men and women, it can produce anxiety for others.
- warm-up appointments. People who have experienced physical trauma may have extreme fear about medical appointments. Some trauma-informed medical facilities offer warm-up appointments or a longer appointments for procedures such as mammograms.
- reducing non-critical invasive procedures. While bed baths may be embarrassing for some people, for some trauma survivors, they could be enormously triggering. This is just one example of reducing non-critical invasive procedures. A patient need not always gown for a medical exam. Medical professionals in a trauma-informed setting invite conversation about how to negotiate quality medical care in a manner which places the patient at ease and increases their likelihood of returning and complying with their care plan.
Whenever possible, try to get to know your medical provider in advance and be proactive about managing your triggers. Sometimes the best help is a friend who understand you and trauma.
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