Have you ever wondered, “Can trauma cause chronic illness?” “Did it cause mine?” And been relieved. Or maybe a little horrified at the idea that if it does, it might mean that it’s all in your head? Or that your doctor (or friends or colleagues or relatives) will tell you that your – very real – symptoms are psychological?
I wrote this book to address this very common question. And to explain how trauma and stress can trigger the onset of almost every chronic disease I have researched over the past 15 years, including my own.
Not because we’re weak, or faking it, playing the victim, or “looking for attention.”
But because the science shows that trauma affects our bodies and our genes. From events so subtle they go unrecognized, to the overt that everyone would think of as being traumatic.
In other words trauma has effects that are not only completely real and scientifically explainable now, but that go far beyond emotional and psychological symptoms.
This post describes Book 1, which provides an overview of what I’ve learned. I will also be adding more books to the series that provide more detail on specific topics. You’ll find them on the downloads page as I complete them (there are currently 2).
Table of Contents
Is it Psychological?
Can trauma cause chronic illness? Or at the very least, can difficult or stressful experiences affect risk for chronic illness?
What if the answer was yes?
And instead of implying that it was all in your head, it meant that something had happened to you that was outside of your control?
That something had changed the way your body reacts to simple things or seemingly mildly stressful events, or even to the kinds of infections that most people recover from with no problem?
What if you had a doctor that told you that trauma of all kinds – much of which is so subtle we don’t even think of it as trauma – was an important risk factor for chronic illness? What if your doctor believed you, even if he or she couldn’t see anything abnormal when examining you or find a test that “proved” you had something he or she recognized?
And what would it be like if your doctor explained that your chronic illness was not something you had caused or were doing to yourself. That if trauma – subtle, invisible or overt – had played a role in the development of your chronic illness, it could also explain why
- it was not your fault
- it was not all in your head
- the first symptoms of chronic illness might have shown up years or even decades before full onset
- symptom flares don’t always come out of the blue
- so many treatments work for a while but become less effective over time.
If doctors were trained with the new research, it would change medicine. There would be a great deal more support – and options – for people with chronic illness. I think doctors would be happier too.
Changing how we think of chronic illness is one of my greatest hopes and intentions for spreading the word about the research. I never heard of the research I’ve discovered since leaving my own career as a doctor.
The Question of Trauma in Chronic Illness is Not New
A hundred years ago, before we started blaming people for their chronic illnesses when they had a history of trauma, doctors were noticing that events such as accidents, the loss of a loved one, or the witnessing of violence seemed to be risk factors for chronic illness. And then they dismissed all of these findings after World War II.
We’ve learned a tremendous amount about trauma since then. How it’s not the same thing as stress. How it’s often not obvious at all. That there are characteristics that are commonly seen with trauma. Which I also see in chronic illnesses in people I’ve worked with, in people’s stories in books and around the web, in the scientific literature, and in my own life with a chronic illness.
What we’re discovering is that those early noticings were right on target. And that it’s not just war or child abuse or natural disasters that affect risk for chronic illness. It’s frequently much more subtle than that.
There are a number of misconceptions that have lead to our current lack of understanding of trauma in medicine and in our culture at large. I describe some of them in my book.
Can Trauma Cause Chronic Illness?
Our understanding of trauma has grown and we can now begin to explain how it actually affects the nervous system, our biochemistry and epigenetics, as well as our physiologies.
Can trauma cause chronic illness? I believe the evidence is overwhelmingly that it can.
The good news?
The good news is that there are tools that can help us to heal from the effects of trauma. These same tools also appear to be potent for working with symptoms of chronic illness. I experience it on a daily basis in working with my own symptoms of chronic illness, which left me essentially bed-ridden for 9 months about 7 years ago. I’ve since made great strides and am continuing to improve. It’s not quick, but it’s deep. Working with trauma has also been very helpful for clients with chronic illness that I’ve worked with.
Medicine and medical training have yet to catch up, but the science is here.
Why Care Since Trauma Happened in the Past?
Understanding the characteristics of trauma and how it affects physical health in a very real way can be tremendously helpful. This is because it doesn’t matter how long ago trauma happened. To our brains and nervous systems, the effects of unresolved trauma act in the present. It’s as if the event is still happening, right here, right in the moment.
It’s possible to heal the effects of trauma, even if an event happened years or decades in the past. It can take time, especially if you have a chronic illness. But as I’ve found by experimenting and working in this way for over a decade with my own debilitating chronic illness, healing unresolved trauma also begins to heal chronic illness and the related symptoms. It can be life changing in the best possible ways.
I share stories in Chapter 7 about people who have worked with their chronic illnesses from trauma perspectives and how it has changed their lives. Some have greatly reduced their symptoms, including with autoimmune diseases that were present in multiple generations. Some have fully recovered, including from asthma and ME/CFS. Others have stabilized their symptoms and regained this stability after set backs, including with Parkinson’s and Guillain Barre syndrome.
What if I Have No History of Trauma?
Many, if not most of us, with chronic illness have no clear history of trauma as we have come to understand it.
This is in large part because our understanding of trauma in our medical culture as well as in our society has yet to catch up with the science.
What we’ve learned is that very subtle forms of difficult life experiences influence long-term health. We’ve seen this not only in animals but also in humans.
Trauma explains how chronic illnesses can result from a change in how our cells and nervous systems and bodies function rather than because they are broken or damaged beyond repair.
Many of these changes in function are about how our bodies have learned to react to the most subtle perceptions of threat. Most commonly at levels that occur well below our conscious awareness.
Some of the studies have been ongoing for decades. Some have studied thousands and thousands of people. Some have tracked very specific types of life experiences. Others have been reviewed by the Cochrane database, which is one of the most highly respected forums guiding decisions about evidenced-based medicine.
I have included some of my own experiences of living with chronic fatigue for 20 years and draw from an in-depth look at my own history and how subtle events influence my health and responses to stress and daily events. This has been an important part of my process of learning to recognize the signs and characteristics of trauma, of testing my theories, and of learning how healing trauma can play a remarkably powerful role in reducing and managing symptoms.
There are now two books on the ebook downloads page