I made this video because my blog focuses on trauma and so many of us living with a chronic illness have no history of trauma.
Here’s a loose transcript of my video:
When You Have No History of Trauma
If you have a chronic illness you may be, like myself, someone who has no history of trauma.
If you have an illness that’s been difficult to diagnose, been invisible, or for which no diagnostic tests exists – like chronic fatigue, which is the chronic illness I have – you may have been judged as someone who has an illness that’s psychological.
That’s a huge problem that we really need to change.
And the science is showing that chronic illness is not in our heads.
In this video I want to talk about what kinds of risk factors might exist if you have no history of trauma. This is based on what I’ve been finding in the research for the past 15 years.
One of the things that most of us know about trauma is that it refers to really big events.
When you have no history of trauma, it can be about experiences at the other end of the spectrum.
This other end of the spectrum involves very subtle experiences and events that we have no recollection or recognition of, such as because they occurred very early in life
Two Under-Recognized Factors That Affect Risk
I’ve drawn chronic illness as an asterisk on the image in this blog post.
When we look for risk factors, we have to go back through time and we have to look really early in life.
1. Events in Pregnancy, Birth and Infancy Affect Risk
One of the risk factors for chronic illness occurs in the perinatal time frame. This refers to periods during pregnancy, birth and infancy.
When I was first looking into research to understand more about what might have triggered or initiated risk for my own chronic illness, I had trouble finding anything about chronic fatigue (ME/CFS). This is partly because chronic fatigue is so difficult to diagnose. And it’s partly because they hadn’t been looking very early in risk factors for ME/CFS.
So I ended up looking at type 1 diabetes. That’s a chronic illness that no one would ever think was psychological. Researchers were noticing that people with type 1 diabetes have antibodies (not everyone, but many people with type 1 diabetes have antibodies). And what they discovered in type 1 diabetes, lupus and other chronic illnesses is that these antibodies often show up years before the actual onset of the chronic illness. Antibodies are sometimes evident as much as 10 years or even more before the onset of symptoms.
Some of these researchers realized that the presence of antibodies indicated that risk factors for chronic illness begin well before the chronic illness itself. So they started looking very early in life. What they found in more than one chronic illness was that events around birth affect risk.
These can be really difficult events. They may have lead to a very complicated delivery. They may have involved being born breech, going through a very long labor, or being born prematurely.
It may have to do with an illness in your mother that happened during her pregnancy with you. Or she may have had an illness when she went into labor with you and it meant that they had to do a cesarean section.
These types of experiences can be risk factors for many chronic illnesses. This is true not just for type 1 diabetes. I’ve also found research showing that early life events affect risk for multiple sclerosis, asthma and other chronic illnesses as well.
But I didn’t have a history of any of these kinds of difficulties. My mom’s pregnancy had been really normal. My birth had been normal as well. When I continued to look through the research, however, I found a lot more information in studies on asthma.
What the asthma studies showed was that it’s not just physical events that are experienced as difficult to affect risk for chronic disease, such as illness in the mom or in the baby around this very early time of life. Studies showed that events which were psychologically stressful also affected risk.
This doesn’t end up meaning that chronic illness is a psychological issue, however.
What I found when I pursued the research in asthma was that events which happened in this time frame affect the whole family. They affect the baby and they also affect the parents.
And they influence the interaction between babies and parents.
These interactions, in turn, influence our genes. This is because life experiences, including very early in life, affect how our genes function.
Risk factors in early life are actually one important time in life that can initiate risk for chronic illness. If you have a chronic illness and no history of trauma, this is one place to look for events that may have affected your health.
What I learned about asthma that ended up applying to other chronic illnesses also helped me understand more my own early life events. What had looked so normal turned out to be much more nuanced and I discovered a series of events that very likely contributed to my risk for ME/CFS as well as my asthma (asthma is another chronic illness I had throughout my life that I forgot to mention in the video).
2. Events in Our Parents’ and Grandparents’ Lives Affect our Health
Another area where they have been looking at risk for chronic illness occurs even before these events in early life. This area is about multigenerational trauma. This is another area in which we’re not going to have any memory of anything significant having happened in our lives. Often our parents and grandparents haven’t had any sense of anything traumatic that’s happened in their lives either.
In examining how stress and difficult events affected health in future generations researchers looked at very extreme experiences.
Some of the well-known studies come from research in World War II. These showed that experiences of stress during pregnancy affects babies. It may influence birth size – sometimes prenatal stress leads to small babies or large babies. Regardless of birth size, however, prenatal stress influences a child’s health all the way into adulthood. It also effects the health of grandkids. These research studies are showing that the effects of stress before birth influence at least three generations (mother, child, grandchild).
Research studies are also looking at what happened on 911 in women who were pregnant at the time. Other studies have followed women who were pregnant during huge ice storms in Quebec. These storms knocked out all the electricity. It was really cold and created very stressful circumstances that we wouldn’t think of as traumatic.
Healing Subtle Traumas from the Distant Past
So if you have no history of trauma think on a different level when you look into risk factors for your chronic illness.
Consider the possibility that there may have been very subtle events early in life and even before you were born that may have affected your health.
One of the reasons that it could be helpful to know about these kinds of events as risk factors for your chronic illness is that there are ways of working to heal the effects of events from the past.
It is possible to heal from the effects of subtle trauma even if they have happened in our early lives. And even if they took place in our ancestors’s lives (see my Therapies page).
I will list the above link again with additional links at the bottom of this post that can help address the effects of events from the past.
If You are the Parent of a Child with Chronic Illness
If you are the parent of a child with chronic illness, there are tools as well. The studies that I found in asthma give a lot of tips for helping to work with the effects of events that may have happened in your own life. This is not because parents are to blame. It’s because events that happen to us have an impact on those we love.
I’ve written in more detail about this and how events during pregnancy, birth and infancy are outside of a parent’s control and alter our genes.
I’m still writing about this information on my blog. It’s an ongoing process as I create a more in-depth website by blogging about the research findings on a regular basis.
The links below refer especially to my process of discovery and the science that led me to understand a whole lot more about chronic illness than anything I’d ever been told about when I was a doctor.
It continues to boil down to the fact that chronic illness – and the role of life events – are not psychological.
Resources and Links
Below are links explaining how early life events affect risk for chronic illnesses of all kinds. There are also links to therapies and resources. These approaches help to heal the effects of trauma even if events happened in the distant past – and even if they occurred in your parents’ or grandparents’ lives.
The therapies provide a potent new context for understanding and dealing with symptoms, flares, and sensitivity to stressful life events. And for making sense of symptom patterns.
Here are therapies for addressing effects of events in early life and in our ancestors’ lives
These types of approaches have also enabled kids to recover from asthma (see the research studies in the discovery series #2). As such, they offer tools for parents in the treatment and prevention of asthma in kids – and may very well offer hope for treatment and prevention of other chronic illnesses as well.
If you are an adult with a chronic disease, the tools and therapies may help begin to heal symptoms – whether you have asthma or a different chronic illness. They have helped clients I’ve worked with begin to improve from their debilitating symptoms and chronic illnesses. They’ve also made a big difference in my own health (I no longer have asthma symptoms and my chronic fatigue has been gradually improving).
Pick an approach that feels intriguing or right for you. Give it a try. And be in touch. Let me know if they are helpful – and if they are not. It’s a process that takes time, and it also helps you begin to feel better – often from day 1. I’d like to hear of your experience.
Until next time.
The Discovery Series : Research I never knew as an MD
Discovery Series #1: Diabetes and the discovery that events in early life affect risk for chronic illness
Discovery Series #2: Asthma and an example for parents whose child has a chronic illness
Discovery Series #3 Research on how early life events alter our genes
My Story: How understanding trauma is making sense of my chronic illness (ME/CFS) and helping me heal
Two blog posts on multigenerational trauma in my history. More research to come in the Discovery Series
Sign up to get blog posts by email for ongoing research, support and tools
Here’s the link to subscribe to my youtube channel for future videos.