Not all apple blossoms become apples.
Whether buds and blooms eventually become ripe, tasty fruit depends a great deal on their environments.
Are flower buds exposed to hard frosts in spring? Are there enough bees to pollinate them when they bloom? Is there sufficient moisture and sunshine during the growing season?
Humans are a lot like apples and trees.
Table of Contents
It’s Not Psychological
It is not the tree’s fault if it’s blossoms get frozen by an early freeze. Nor if it’s apples are blemished by a summer storm or shriveled by a drought. The tree does not choose whether its apples grow to maturity. The vagaries of where it is planted and weather events do.
The same is true for people.
We do not choose or plan whether we develop a chronic illness. We are affected by our environments and elements outside of our control.
Life experiences are like the weather. They contribute to contentment, connection and compassion in our lives as well as increase our risk of developing a chronic illness.
Chronic illnesses are shaped by experiences that are outside of our control. Unlike the apple tree, however, we can heal our wounds. We can address adverse experiences early on, before we develop symptoms. We can begin to heal even after a chronic illness begins.
And there are tools for healing effects of subtle trauma and perceptions from years and decades past – including even from events that happened in our ancestor’s lives, whether they are still with us or not.
Trauma, Subtle Perceptions of Threat and Chronic Illness
When the word “trauma” is mentioned in the same sentence as “chronic illness,” it often implies that our illnesses are not real. That they are all in our heads. That all we have to do to get better is to put mind over matter – pick ourselves up – stop acting like wimps – and move on.
I introduce the research showing that it’s not psychological and that offers new tools for treating symptoms of chronic illness.
Doctors, family members, friends and colleagues often hold these perspective about us and our chronic diseases. Even though such a view suggests that being sick is our fault.
And it’s hard not to see ourselves from a similar place that blames, shames and judges.
What I’ve learned since leaving my medical career, developing my own debilitating chronic illness, and retraining in the field of traumatic stress is that these notions are false. They are out of date. And they do a great disservice – to those of us with visible and invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses, to society, and to our kids and future generations.
Whether trauma has affected risk – or not – it’s not psychological.
The research in chronic illnesses of all kinds shows that life events influence how our genes function.
It’s the balance between nurturing, supportive and encouraging experiences – and difficult, overwhelming experiences that are outside of our control – that affects genes, and consequently, our health.
We don’t develop a chronic illness because of something we’ve done. It’s because of what we’ve experienced.
When You Have a History of Trauma
You may be among the many individuals with a chronic illness who have experienced trauma and know or suspect that it is somehow connected to your chronic illness.
Maybe it was an event – or a series of events – that triggered the onset of your disease. Or that happened in the year or two before your symptoms became full blown. Maybe you had a difficult experience or a number of challenging or traumatic events in childhood.
Either way, a history of trauma can make us want to understand how it affected our risk given that we, as a culture, believe that trauma leads only to psychological problems. And because we know that our illness is real and not in our heads.
There’s not a lot of information explaining the links between trauma and chronic illness. And what does exist repeatedly suggests that it’s psychological.
The research shows that if you have a chronic illness and a history of trauma it’s not psychological.
And it’s time to update the science.
It’s time for our doctors and communities, our friends and lovers to have the information that explains what’s really going on.
It’s also time to learn more about what we can do. This includes prevention as well as treatment for the untold numbers who have been losing the productive, playful, golden years of their lives.
* You’ll find the full transcription of this video in my blog post When you have a history of trauma.
Stress or trauma before onset
Overview of how trauma affects risk for chronic illness
When You Have No History of Trauma
Many of us with chronic illness, like myself, have no history of trauma.
What I’ve discovered since I left medicine is that life experiences affect risk for chronic illnesses of all kinds.
Adverse life events exist on a continuum.
There are overt experiences that are life-threatening, overwhelming or horrific and traumatic on one end of the spectrum, such as surviving war, abuse, or natural disasters.
On the other end of the spectrum are events so subtle that we have yet to recognize them or their impact outside of most research studies.
These are different for every one of us and depend on how we experience them. Events such as medical procedures and anesthesia may be life-saving and supportive for some. For others, they may be terrifying, painful and debilitating. Being born by cesarean may be life-saving. If that’s the case, however, it also implies there were experiences that were life-threatening for the mother, her baby (babies), or both.
These kinds of everyday events affect our genes. And our growing understanding explains why it’s not psychological.
Ultimately, what the research shows is that experiences along the trauma continuum – from overt to subtle, and in between – affect our genes. As a result, they also influence our health and affect our risk of developing a chronic illness.
The good news is that there are ways of healing trauma, even if it happened very early in our lives. And even if it happened in our ancestors’ lives.
The Discovery Series : Research I never knew as an MD
Discovery Series Post 1.1: The discovery that events in early life affect risk for chronic illness
Discovery Series Post 1.2: An example for parents whose child has a chronic illness
Two blog posts on multigenerational trauma. More research pending in the Discovery Series
Therapies for working with unrecognized adverse events from early life and in our ancestors’ lives