Is there a connection between rheumatoid arthritis and trauma? Ameé Quicironi, whose symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis first started in 2013, believes so. In this interview we did for her podcast at One Broken Mom, we talk about the science showing how adversity is a risk factor for rheumatoid disease and many other chronic illnesses. We also discuss how it’s not psychological.
Listen to the Full 1 Hour Interview
at One Broken Mom
Ameé starts the podcast by describing the onset of her rheumatoid arthritis / rheumatoid disease (RA/RD).
She developed excruciating shoulder pain in 2013 that would come on for a few days that would wake her at night and fail to resolve with anything she tried. It would then disappear completely before returning the following month. She thought it was due to an injury from lifting heavy tiles by herself. When she developed wrist pain later that year after her husband experienced a terrifying accident, they thought it was some kind of sympathy symptom for his own injuries.
Ameé explains how alone she felt when her partner, friends and doctors didn’t get it. She mentions how depressing it was after diagnosis when the cause was unknown and treatments all carried significant risks.
When she began to notice that stress and emotions were triggers for her flare-ups, she started researching online and began to connect the dots. She began to realize that stress and old attachment traumas may have affected her risk of getting so sick.
In this interview, we talk about the science showing how life experiences interact with our genes to increase risk for autoimmune and other diseases. We touch on research about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), epigenetics, and the cell danger response. We also look at how the effects of adversity and trauma are not psychological.
Listen to the full interview on her website in episode 1.27 “Childhood Trauma and Our Health.” You can also get snippets of our conversation in the excerpts below.
You can learn more about the science and download free pdfs at the bottom of this post. See Kelly Young’s blog Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior for a superb resource on RA/RD.
Addressing Trauma can Help Symptoms and Flares
In this segment, Ameé describes how a 2-year-long flare of wrist pain resolved over night after a date.
It wasn’t because her she had started “thinking positive.” It wasn’t because RA/RD is psychological.
The process briefly described in this segment included mindful, nonjudging self-awareness of the fact that, for her, connection with others can come with a quality of threat and rejection. Being aware of this process in herself is one of the ways she supported her nervous system to shift its perception, and to then also shift a chronic symptom of very real inflammation and joint pain.
The science of the cell danger response and epigenetics both help explain how and why such a rapid shift can happen, even with a physiological process that is causing changes or damage to tissues and cell function. You can learn more about how to work with symptoms in similar ways in therapies for healing nervous system perceptions of threat.
It’s a Nervous System Issue, not a Psychological Issue
Trauma and adverse experiences are risk factors for RA/RD and other autoimmune diseases because life events interact with our genes to shape health.
These effects of trauma are not psychological.
Our cells, tissues and nervous systems determine how to orient to the world according to whether they feel safety and support or threat.
This perspective gets imbedded in our biology by molecules that attach to our genes to guide how they should function. This process responds differently in safety than in threat. It is called epigenetics, because these molecules attach to the surface (“epi”) of genes without changing the underlying structure of our DNA. We talk about epigenetics in a little more detail in the full podcast (episode 1.27).
Rheumatoid Arthritis / Disease: A Cell Danger Response to Threat
Research is beginning to show that chronic diseases such as RA/RD arise when our bodies get stuck in states of fight, flight or freeze and are unable to recover as they are designed to do.
Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases occur when our bodies remove certain cells and tissues or cause harm so that these tissues can’t function as they do in health. Emerging science suggests this is not because our bodies are attacking themselves at random, but because they mistakenly believe that old traumas or difficult events are still happening and that we are still under threat.
These perspectives are supported by Dr. Robert Navaiux’ studies of the cell danger response in his mitochondrial research lab at UC San Diego and by Dr. Stephen Porges, a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who came up with polyvagal theory. It is also supported by studies in epigenetics, brain development and neuroplasticity, and by discoveries that adverse life events affect risk for type 1 diabetes, asthma and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) among many other diseases.
Positive/ Negative Thinking
How we think about and perceive the world is linked to whether we feel safe, supported and seen. It is also deeply affected by whether the world or parts of our environments have been threatening or stressful.
We see the world through our nervous systems.
Our brains influence our unconscious perceptions based on life events. These may be supportive and give us a sense that we are accepted, welcomed and belong in the world. Or they may be linked to threat following adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that leave us believing we have to fend for ourselves because no one will do it for us, or that it’s not safe to be ourselves or to be connected because it’s too vulnerable. Our relationships with our parents also shape these perceptions, as do events in pregnancy and birth.
Life experiences have an impact not only on our brains and nervous systems, but also on our immune systems, our cells, our thoughts and our feelings. Together, such events influence our long-term health.
Listen to the Full Interview
at One Broken Mom
Connect with Ameé
Ameé kindly shared the above terrific cover art and excerpts from our interview.
You can learn more about Ameé’s story and listen to her other podcasts, such as this one about teen suicide and how understanding trauma is helping her parent in a new way.
You can also connect with her or follow her:
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Trauma
As Kelly Young describes on her blog Rheumatoid Arthritis Warrior (RAW), environmental events can trigger the onset of RA/RD and the process begins years before symptoms show up. This is because risk for RA/RD is estimated to be at most 50% genetic (or less).
Exposure to environmental stressors such as infections, toxins, psychological or physical trauma, and other factors such as smoking and diet are believed to be necessary to unmask existing genetic susceptibility and to increase risk whether or not a person has high risk genes. Trauma and adversity make us more sensitive to infections, toxins and other environmental risk factors.
You can learn more about environmental risk factors for RA/RD in early life and childhood. It’s not psychological, and as I’ve mentioned above, mechanisms are being discovered that include the cell danger response and epigenetics.
Here’s a summary of the science about how trauma affects risk for chronic diseases of all kinds, a detailed guide to trauma and the nervous system, and free ebooks on the chronic illness and trauma connection.
Here’s a list of my rheumatoid arthritis and trauma posts, recovery stories, and some of the topics we covered in the podcast:
What Causes Rheumatoid Arthritis: Adverse Babyhood Experiences (ABEs)
Adverse Childhood Experiences and RA/RD
What Causes RA / RD? Trauma, Links, and Stories of Recovery
RA and ME/CFS: Multigenerational Trauma and Ghosts in My Family Tree
You can learn more about the increasingly recognized research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and risk for chronic disease and calculate your ACE score.
To better understand how adversity affects risk for chronic disease and tips on how to work with trauma and support healing here are tools, books and therapies.
Why It’s Helpful to Know About Trauma Research in Chronic Disease
It’s helpful to know about the role of trauma as a risk factor for RA/RD and other diseases because healing the effects of adversity supports healing. Addressing adversity can make it easier to understand and work with flares, reduce symptoms and support healing. This is true even if events happened years or decades in the past.
Here are tools and therapies for working with trauma from a nervous system perspective (because RA/RD is not “psychological”).
Free PDFs on RA/RD and Trauma
Learn more in our 2nd podcast that highlights some of the topics I cover in this detailed blog post about triggers and how understanding this is helping Amee continue to make gains in improving her rheumatoid disease.
Richard Hoover says
I had no idea that RA evolving depends on so many factors. Thank you for spreading the information!
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Hi Richard, Yes, it’s quite amazing when you start looking from this perspective!