The Mighty Logo

Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine When You Have Medical PTSD

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Walgreens has just begun distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. As a health care worker (licensed massage therapist) I qualify to receive it. There is only one problem: I have medical trauma, and I know there is a strong chance my complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) symptoms will arise. So, I’m sitting with my laptop open for a few moments staring at the availability (I’m shocked to see appointments as soon as tomorrow) and weigh the options. Could I get this vaccine? The last time I got a flu shot I had an anxiety attack. Do I want to potentially go through that again? Will I have a “trauma flare-up”? Will the provider be compassionate and understanding? The way I describe the flu shot experience, you’d think someone was trying to murder me. To anyone who will listen, I describe how this man came at me with a syringe full of the flu vaccine as if it were a scene from Psycho.

• What is PTSD?

I didn’t even know medical trauma was a thing until the pandemic hit and people started sharing their experiences and flare-ups (I like to call them flare-ups, most people call them triggers). I have gone through my share of hospital visits (I can count on one hand the years I haven’t been to a hospital and I’m over 30), but this isn’t the article about justifying or disclosing my trauma. This is about how I deal with the flare-ups in medical settings. As I mentioned, I’m learning new techniques to cope but the dissociation happens almost every time. This is an article for the millions of people who know or suspect they have medical trauma and want to know what it’s like getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, “medical trauma is a set of psychological and physiological responses to pain, injury, serious illness, medical procedures, and frightening treatment experiences.” Medical trauma can arise from treatment you’ve received or from witnessing a family member or loved one undergo treatment. I’ve worked very hard over the years and continue to work hard to be able to step foot inside any hospital or doctor’s office without automatically dissociating or hyperventilating or having a panic attack. It took years to not have my blood pressure skyrocket every time someone checked my vitals. It’s really challenging, especially when you have to talk to a provider about symptoms. Now when I go to appointments, I make sure precautions are in place like charging my Bluetooth headphones, downloading some Spotify playlists, and writing down what I’d like the provider to know. I’m beginning to learn other coping strategies like pranayama, grounding exercises (naming objects in the room, body scans, guided meditations), and bringing a fidget cube with me.

I hit refresh on the Walgreens vaccination website, seeing times quickly disappear from the screen. I have to make a decision quickly. I know I’m going to get the vaccine sooner or later. There is no denying the inevitable. This is something that’s going to happen. I opt for the last available day, a Monday in the afternoon, and wait for the next steps.

The days leading up the appointment, I try to distract myself (avoidance is one of my go-to coping strategies). Although my newsfeed makes it extremely difficult to do that and I often find myself scrolling and reading and engaging in conversations about the COVID-19 vaccine and the potential side effects. Right now only a handful of my friends have received their vaccines. I ask questions and they tell me about the various symptoms they experienced (all very mild, mainly a tender arm). I try to tell myself this is most likely going to be my experience too. That doesn’t always work and the undercurrent of anxiety is constantly waiting to pop-up saying — remember the last vaccine you got!? I’m glad my body and mind are trying to protect me but this is a DIFFERENT VACCINE. The constant push and pull takes a toll on me. I make sure the day of the appointment, Monday, I have a jammed packed schedule so that I don’t leave room for my anxiety to spiral.

The day of the appointment I have a busy morning, which starts with 30 minutes of brush time and play time with my cat, Nike (thank you WFH and adopting a kitten during the pandemic). Shortly after I have a flare-up and the meetings and the jammed pack schedule now take a back seat. I’m having a panic attack, which turns into intense crying and finally exhaustion. I spend an hour trying to calm myself down before I embark on this mission of walking to Walgreens in the Chicago snow.

Walking there I’m listening to some Blink 182, because you know why not? I can feel that I’m beginning to dissociate because simple directions become increasingly difficult to follow. As I approach that familiar red awning I keep second guessing if it’s even a Walgreens — which Google Maps quickly verifies that yes, it is indeed a Walgreens, the very Walgreens where in 15-minutes I’m set to get my vaccine. No backing out now. I walk in and go find the pharmacy. I see a long line and frantic understaffed employees and start to panic a bit. Should I wait in this line? Do I have a seat in the waiting area? Are all these other people here for the vaccine too? Have the staff taken their lunches yet? Do they know what they’re doing? After a momentary internal freak-out, I pause the music, get out the paperwork, and go up to the consultation window (I can feel the glare of everyone waiting in that long line). Behind the window is a tall man who is doing three things at once. I tell him I have an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine. He tells me to wait and someone will be with me shortly. I take a few deep breaths and try to reassure myself that things will be OK.

I sit down to fill out the form and wait for them to call me. I try and ground myself with a meditation from Headspace. There is a box asking if you experience any weakness or dizziness with vaccines. I check “yes.” As I wait, I decide to post in my story on IG and Facebook (for moral support) letting folks know I’m at Walgreens and about to do this. In the back of my mind I keep telling myself that I’m not going to get dizzy or faint. That there is no way I’m going to be put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital for an adverse reaction (of course my mind always goes to the worst-case scenario). I put on the Chill Instrumental Beats playlist from Spotify and zone out until I hear them call my name. We go over the form including the box I checked and the provider shows me the EpiPen (at this point my vision is starting to get blurry and I really check-out) and asks about my experience with the flu shot. After I tell her, she is empathetic and promises that this will be a different experience. She tells me I can take all the time I need and we do a few deep breaths together. Then she talks me through the whole procedure before prepping my left arm and this time it’s the real thing. I look away and don’t even notice the needle or being injected. I don’t notice if it’s painful or not. I don’t even realize it’s over until she tells me. I look back and she’s putting a Band-Aid on the injection site and telling me I did a great job. Since I fainted after the flu shot, she’s going to monitor me for 25 minutes — most people are monitored for 15 minutes. I focus on my breathing, take some post-vaccine selfies, and spend way too much time deciding on the “right” filter. Fifteen minutes goes by and nothing. I’m OK. I’m not feeling faint, seeing black dots, or needing to lie down. After the 25 minutes are up, I think I can make it back home safely, at least the thought of needing medical attention gives me the strength and energy to make it home. I thank the provider for her kindness and leave, retracing my steps back through the snow.

If you’re hesitant about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine because of past experiences, traumas, or fears, know that you will be OK. It might be scary and you may have a flare-up (because THE BODY REMEMBERS and is just trying to protect you). Come up with a game plan — what does that look like for you? What do you need to make this experience tolerable? If you have medical trauma, it’s going to suck but you can do things to make it suck less. The entire procedure lasts less than one minute for the injection and 15-minutes (or more) of monitoring post-injection. You may want to bring someone with you. That’s an option. You may even have the option of getting the vaccine at your primary care provider’s office. Remember you have options and choices. Don’t let fear deter you from stopping the spread. As Dr. Susan Jeffers says “feel the fear and do it anyway.”

A version of this story originally appeared on

Photo submitted by contributor.

Originally published: April 5, 2023
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home