I’ve been blogging for a year this month. Chewing on the ideas and research has been helping me. Whether it’s been to see more patterns in my symptoms, to work through new edges, or to liberate the creative forces that keep compelling me to tell you about this different way of thinking about chronic illness, it’s been empowering and deeply satisfying. It’s sometimes also been scary to be so revealing of my personal life and of my unusual perspectives about origins of disease.
I’ve found myself more focused on The Chronic Illness Model than I expected, yet the more research I see, the more I believe that trauma plays an important role in the development of chronic illness. My hunch is that trauma, chronic illness and healing all fit together. This Year in Review summarizes major points I’ve been wanting to emphasize this year. All of the links lead to related blog posts. Many of them are referenced in multiple sections, giving you the chance to follow what draws your curiosity the most. You can find a list of all posts on this site map, which gives you options for viewing them by category, date, and title. They often build on one another and the first post is at the bottom. They also stand alone.
I started the blog and introduced myself last May (including with a short video) and described how living with a chronic illness has felt like being tumbled like a stone. I’ve been describing and defining some of the characteristics of trauma and provide a big overview of how trauma and early life events affect risk for chronic illness. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), parenting styles and parent-child relationships are factors that affect risk for chronic illness. I’ll be offering additional posts about the model as I go along.
The reason I find the research so fascinating is because, even though there is no quick fix, it suggests that symptoms of chronic illness can be reduced and someday, even resolved. To that end I see an important role for trauma therapy as well as making room for things that resource us in ways that feed our souls.
I originally thought I’d be sharing my story of chronic fatigue very early in the blog. Instead I’ve found myself wanting to build a solid foundation for understanding the role of trauma so that I can tell you about it from this perspective. I’m hoping to do that in the coming year. In the meantime, I’ve been using some of my symptoms, history and current experiences to help describe aspects of the model.
I keep looking at risk factors for chronic illness from the perspectives of the model, which helps us avoid blaming, shaming and judging. It also helps us see that trauma can come down through generations to affect risk for chronic illness and that such effects occur even when parents have the best of intentions and raise their kids in healthy ways. I’ve been exploring my ancestry and the relationship I have with my parents as potential contributors to my chronic fatigue. I’ve come to see my cravings for sweets as part of a survival pattern. I made many dietary changes over the years but it took the worsening symptoms of dryness, “acidity,” and increasing intolerances to foods and medications to motivate me to adopt a more drastic and comprehensive diet.
The long-term effects of trauma, which can add up over time, can take years to show up as symptoms if they show up as symptoms at all. As an example of this, I experienced 3 particular traumatic events over a period of 10 years before ever having any noticeable problems with how they affected my sleep.
To highlight the effect of past traumas in the present, I described a recent set of exacerbations – including hemorrhoids, cystitis, eye inflammation and fatigue – and the discovery that they were triggered by links to a traumatic childhood event.
I’ve slowly been learning how to work with exacerbations such as limb weakness and fear, to follow my intuition, as well as to slow down and allow myself to appreciate and enjoy the little things as best I can. The human journey is quite a trip, isn’t it?
Unresolved trauma leads to altered patterns of nervous system regulation.
When trauma is unresolved, it leads to survival patterns. Survival patterns are often expressed unintentionally through cravings and addictions. These tend to be unconscious attempts to fill a void, such as the underlying pain of old traumas and the consequent longing for connection and safety. For some of us, these survival patterns are also expressed as physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms such as PTSD, chronic illness, or both.
Multiple traumatic events or “hits” affect risk for chronic illness.
Research suggests that experiencing repeated traumatic events plays an important role in affecting risk for chronic disease. I suspect they do so by creating and then strengthening survival patterns of fight, flight and freeze, which alter our physiologies as well as our emotions and behaviors. Experiences of trauma in childhood, both overt and covert, are associated with increased risk for chronic illness, including rheumatoid arthritis. In the coming year I hope to write about the risk conferred by trauma at other times of our lives as well. These include events during prenatal life and at birth, which are associated with risk for many chronic illnesses, and in the period before the onset of disease. Stress and trauma in the year or two before a chronic illness are likely the final “hits” that crystallize and unmask long-existing survival patterns rather than being the sole cause of disease. The lack of recognition and acknowledgment of trauma in our culture likely has additive effects in strengthening survival patterns as well.
Survival patterns and risk for chronic illness are initiated before childhood.
While trauma in childhood and in our earliest relationships have been clearly linked to an increased risk for chronic disease, not everyone who experiences childhood trauma develops a chronic illness. I suspect this is because trauma even earlier in our lives is necessary to set up patterns of altered nervous system regulation. Trauma in our grandparents’ lives and in our prenatal lives and at birth may be critical factors in determining risk as well as in influencing the type of illnesses we develop. This is because life events affect developmental patterns when embryos and organ systems are first forming. The effects appear to occur through epigenetics. You can get a sense of how unresolved trauma is passed down through the generations in a poignant novel by Dylan Yates. I’ll be writing more about this topic in the coming year.
Symptoms can be exacerbated by stress and nontraumatic events.
When we look at our symptoms or exacerbations within the context of trauma we can begin to see how the past influences the present. Current events can precipitate the onset of a chronic illness as well as trigger symptoms and exacerbations – even when these events are not traumatic themselves. This occurs when experiences in the present are linked, however loosely, to unresolved traumatic events in the past. This is how stressful or seemingly everyday events can serve as reminders (triggers) of past traumas. Triggers are often subtle and can be difficult to identify. Surprisingly, changing old survival patterns and working to heal these patterns can also trigger symptoms and exacerbations. I’m working on a follow-up post about my recent exacerbation of cystitis that looks more closely at this topic of triggers.
A history of trauma is not a life sentence. Healing is possible.
While there are generally no cures or quick fixes for chronic illness some people do recover. Young children with asthma, for example, routinely recover or improve when their mothers are treated for trauma that happened to them during pregnancy, birth and early in the lives of their children. I keep referring to this research because I see it as an indication of the possibilities of recovery for all kinds of chronic illnesses, both in children and in adults. I look forward to telling you more about this research in the coming year.
The role that trauma plays in the development and expression of chronic illness suggests that treating trauma should be helpful in many ways. This is where I feel there is much reaping to come from learning about trauma in general, and about our own triggers and histories of trauma in particular. If used early, trauma therapy may delay or prevent the onset of chronic illness by resolving survival strategies before they become patterns. After the onset of a chronic illness, therapy may help reduce symptoms and exacerbations as well as allow for more ease in living and coping with chronic illness. Ultimately, maybe trauma therapy and other underutilized approaches can help people begin to actually recover from chronic illnesses.
In my own life, trauma therapy and other work has had the added benefit of enabling me to befriend my chronic illness. I still get frustrated and fearful at times, but I continue to sense that treating the different kinds of trauma we’ve experienced is a powerful tool for easing the journey with chronic illnesses of all kinds. This includes approaches for working with trauma from our prenatal lives and at birth, in childhood, in our earliest relationships as well as with trauma that our ancestors experienced. You can find different types of trauma therapies and links for finding practitioners in the Frequently Asked Questions.
In my work with my chronic fatigue of nearly 20 years I have so far gravitated towards 10 treatment tools in particular. They include diet, intuition, trauma therapy and meditation (as well as resistance to meditating). Making time for the little things that give me pleasure and finding ways to include more ease, simplicity and laughter have also served as increasingly important resources. Together, these tools are helping to soften the journey and are shifting nervous system patterns that I believe are driving my chronic fatigue. I’m seeing it in the way my symptom exacerbations can be triggered by reminders of past events. I’m also seeing it in the way that working to change old survival patterns in my life can also trigger exacerbations, and why.
I’ll keep writing about the research, about my personal learning curve on this journey, and sharing what I discover as I go!
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