I made this video because so many of us living with a chronic illness have no evidence of trauma in our histories. If trauma is ever brought up, it can be used to blame people for being sick because it’s still often thought to be psychological. But there are links between adverse multigenerational experiences and chronic illness that have occurred too far in the past for most us to remember or know about. The video introduces adverse multigenerational experiences (AMEs), and a second risk factor that is rarely recognized, that of adverse events babyhood experiences (ABEs).
I’ve coined both of these terms because they represent similar science to ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) research, which is also an important risk factor for disease.
Science is showing that none of these risk factors are psychological. Instead, they reflect a new understanding of disease showing that life experiences interact with our genes to shape long-term health. Addressing and healing these types of trauma is possible and can be a helpful tool in chronic disease.
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.
A Different Lens
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. Adverse Multigenerational Experiences and Chronic Illness: 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 research is about links between adverse multigenerational experiences and chronic illness. 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 (download the list of books and therapies for healing trauma and chronic illness at the bottom of this page).
I have 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.
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 in the Books and Therapies pdf below 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.
What you can do:
- My Story: How understanding trauma is making sense of my chronic illness (ME/CFS) and helping me heal
- Learn more about the role of events in pregnancy, birth and infancy in my Discovery Series:
- Post #1: researchers in type 1 diabetes started recognizing what kinds of early events affect risk
- Post #2: Asthma explains more about early events; it is also an example for parents whose child has a chronic illness
- Post #3 Explaining how early life events alter our genes
- Two blog posts on adverse multigenerational experiences and chronic illness. More research to come
- You can find a list of books and therapies for healing the effects of trauma and working with symptoms of chronic illness such as autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, gut problems (IBS, Crohn’s) and many more.
- You’ll find these resources in my blog post or can download the pdf of the post below, with the addition of a one page summary of all the resources.The post and pdf present 2 books specifically for working with multigenerational trauma as well as a website to help you can find a therapist in this specialty.You’ll also find tips on how to choose a therapist and websites to help you find therapists who focus specifically on events from pregnancy, birth and infancy for children, parents, as well as adults..
- Sign up to get blog posts by email for ongoing research, tools for improving symptoms, and surveys
- Subscribe to my youtube channel for future videos.
- Read my free ebook series about the science and connection between trauma and chronic illness (see below).
Billie Abbott says
Dear Veronique, I’ve had CFS/ME for almost 20 years,with MCS developing to a severe degree during that time. That we cannot choose, often, the places we are or life’s continuing events of stress, has,
when I was coming out of it fate 5 years, sent me back in, and in recent years, those factors have put
me in a real crash. I am still a bit lost with the ones that I love, as I don’t want to upset them…. and they
have become like visitors. Have always had a close relationship with my only daughter, and she lives 8 hours away, so we have a funny email, text kind a thing. She understands, but I know it hurts her, as I had a very ill mother for a long time (and father); and now she is flowering into her creativity in music; so I keep it low key. I do follow a Methylation Cycle programme with an integrative doctor, and take compounded supplements, based on 6 monthly tests on Serum Copper and Zinc Plasma blood tests. It is expensive, and “money’s too tight to mention. What I do: Apple Cider Vinegar daily, Bee Pollen tabs; Lomatium, Liquorice Herbal Extract; Vital Green Powder mixed with Coconut Water and Rejuvalac (which I make); Black Chia seeds (soaked) and sea salt added with lemon juice and a touch
of sugar; Kava Herbal Extract; Kava tabs; Rivotril (only prescription drug, but had to take it in the beginning to stop the short circuits in brain – the only doctor who understood as she had had CFS/ME
without the head symptoms; Sugar Water Kefir(I make it); Golden Milk – a numeric based drink. I did
a lot of this to help me live in friend who was diagnosed with Stage 1 Prostate Cancer, and he chose to
go an surveillance rather than be messed with; and, fingers crossed his PSA has come back low after
a year of this. Never use sugar, use Birch Xylitol; Dandelion Root for a hot drink.
The spiritual and mental side is difficult, I take SAMe, even thought my primary care doctor is fighting me to take anti-depressants, but I have long ago, and am too sensitive. I am in a CFS/ME “crash” due to death of sister and other things, so I find it hard to pray or meditate. Do Ashok Gupta Meditation
tapes in morning when wild horses are running around in my head and stomach, and use the Serenity
Prayer, as often as I can. Do a very simple EFT before sleep if not too week.
Veronique, there is too much I know, and to tell you about my life, well, it has contained tragic loss of
my father to an Institution when I was 11, and he was really not mental, just a victim of the new
medicines in the ’50’s, amphetamines, etc, long story, subsequent nervous breakdown of my mother at
my age 13, as his illness (asthma which he was treated with pure adrenalin in a puffer!!!) was present long before my birth. Abuse from love of my life husband (one culminating in a huge punch to my
nose which bled, and I kept on loving him – he had a hard childhood0 and a lot of dental problems –
I had better stop, because this is only the tip of the iceberg, I know other people go through a lot more,
but mine accumulated, and I can’t tell you everything. But I am glad you understand, as did my first
doctor that a understood, whom I can’t afford to see now, she called them “Childhood Insults”, which included illnesses. No wonder no one can really get a handle on all of this. I was eating healthily,
doing a daily yoga practice, when I went down.
Thankyou for reading, if you possible can, Sincerely Billie. It stresses me to write about all this.r
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
I’m so glad that coming here helps you feel heard and understood. That is something very needed in our world.
Being sick, and for such a long time is a difficult road to travel. You share a strong set of skills and tools and I’m so glad you have such a good connection with your daughter and that she is following her passion. What a wonderful thing that you can support for her in her life.
You describe very significant adverse events in your life – including “childhood insults” as one of your doctors said. The research shows that these don’t have to be life-threatening to have a long term impact on our health and that their effects do add up. It’s not psychological or in our heads, and what we’re learning is that these events affect our bodies, biology and physiology. In other words, it’s real.
We can’t compare ourselves to what others have experienced – there will always be someone who’s life looks worse than ours. It’s okay to accept that you’ve been through great hardships – having both of your parents so seriously ill is really huge, as is living with someone you love who is also an abuser. And then to lose a sister recently would make sense as a trigger for a crash.
So, while you’re commenting on a blog post about how trauma does not appear to be a risk factor, you represent a very common picture of risk factors that are considered traumatic.
If you aren’t familiar with the tools, take a look at the books and therapies for healing the effects of trauma. It can make a difference for you as something to consider adding to your tool kit. And if you haven’t already and it might feel helpful, take a look at my blog post about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are risk factors for many kinds of diseases if you aren’t already familiar with them.
I send you my love and best wishes on this journey.
Really good, the way you put the facts across.
There is so much we are still learning about the mind-body connection. How we are affected by events that are beyond the control of parents.
Understanding how these traumas affect a child and doing one’s best to ameliorate the effects in childhood itself will be the next challenge. That’s the way to stop chronic illnesses from developing.
Ah, there is so we still have to learn.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Hi Cheryl, There really is so much we still have to learn, isn’t there?! And the resources for healing multigenerational trauma are pretty powerful even as we need to continue to grow our awareness in our society so we can treat early and especially begin to prevent chronic illness and other health problems from arising in the first place.