Many people with chronic illness have a history of trauma and wonder if the two are linked. I created a video on this question because so many people with chronic illness develop symptoms soon after a traumatic event. Many wonder if trauma at other times in their lives could also affect risk.
A history of trauma is very common in chronic illness and research shows that it’s not psychological. Many don’t know that there are many therapies that can address and heal the effects of trauma. Because trauma plays such an important and unrecognized role in risk for chronic illness such therapies may also help with symptoms of chronic illness. This is not well known territory although there is research showing that healing the effects of trauma can sometimes heal asthma in children. Similar approaches have helped tremendously with my own chronic illness journey as well as with clients I and others have worked with.
You’ll find a loose transcript of the video below along with links to resources, free downloadable ebooks and more at the bottom of this post.
Does a History of Trauma Affect Risk for Chronic Illness?
If you have a chronic illness and you have a sense that a traumatic event or series of really difficult events triggered the onset of your chronic illness, you’ll find that this is actually common.
You may have heard that this is the case for others too, although what you may have found is that doctors and others usually believe it’s psychological.
What I discovered as a physician and looking at studies in different kinds of chronic illnesses including autoimmune diseases, asthma, and chronic fatigue which is my own chronic illness; as well as from experience with clients that I have worked with, is that it’s not actually psychological.
It’s not in your head.
And what we’re starting to see in the science that’s emerging is that it’s really about how life events affect your genes.
A History of Trauma is Common in These 2 Periods
If you have a chronic illness, chances are you have a history of trauma during one or two time periods in your life.
1. Before Onset
The first place people have commonly experienced a history of trauma is before the onset of their chronic illnesses.
This may have happened as a single significant event. For example, maybe you had a fall and broke your ankle. Or were in a car accident. Or got fired from work, which you wouldn’t think is traumatic – but it tends to be linked to other events that have happened in the past.
It may also be that you experienced a series of really stressful or traumatic events sometime before onset. Maybe you lost a family member. Maybe you were a caregiver for a number of years and then moved and had to start your life all over.
Sometimes the event that happens before the onset of chronic illness or that triggers the start of symptoms occurs in the weeks or months just before everything starts. It is also common for these events to happen in the year or two years before the onset of symptoms.
The occurrence of a traumatic event or a series of stressful events before the onset of a chronic illness is actually very common. So is the variation in how long before onset the event(s) took place – from weeks to months to a few years.
Learn more in this blog post about stress and trauma before onset of chronic illness.
2. In Childhood
Another time in our lives when trauma is suspected to have affected risk for chronic illness is a history of trauma in childhood.
There are all sorts of events that can happen in childhood that have been found to affect risk for chronic illness.
One of the most well-documented series of scientific studies that’s coming out in the media right now is the research about adverse childhood experiences.
The studies are referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences or “ACEs.”
The ACEs are composed of 10 very specific questions that these scientists took a look at.
They don’t include every type of traumatic event that can happen in childhood but the 10 types of events they did look at include things such as:
- losing a parent
- experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- experiencing neglect
- witnessing domestic violence (the ACE studies ask only if you witnessed your father abusing your mother or step-mother but it’s known that seeing any person suffer abuse or other type of trauma can be traumatizing to the one who sees it, no matter who is abusing whom or what type of trauma it is).
The adverse childhood experiences are associated with a very significant increase in risk for chronic illness.
Learn more in my blog post on ACEs and chronic illness.
These are the two most common types of trauma you likely have a sense of if you’ve experienced trauma and suspect that it relates to your chronic illness.
Resources When You Have a History of Trauma
Below are a number of links for more information. These include tools you can use to heal many if not most of the effects of trauma. This is true even if the traumatic events happened years ago or even if they happened decades ago and in your childhood.
How far and to what extent we can heal chronic illness by addressing the effects of trauma, I don’t know. But healing the effects of trauma can have a huge impact on your experience of your chronic illness including your symptoms, your sensitivities to stress, your flares and more.
Understanding more about trauma and working through it also gives you a context that will help you better understand symptoms and patterns in your chronic illness.
What you Can do
- Summary of how trauma affects risk for chronic illness
- Read blog post on How Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) affect risk for chronic illness and find out your ACE score
- Learn more in a blog post about stress and trauma before onset of chronic illness
- 10 Tools for working with chronic illness
- You can find a list of books and therapies in my blog post or download the post as a pdf. The download includes a 1 page summary of the best books and therapies for healing the effects of trauma and working with symptoms of chronic illness. It refers to trauma therapies, which are designed to heal nervous system patterns and perceptions of threat and are very different from cognitive or behavioral therapies.
- Some trauma therapies in the above blog post or downloadable pdf are especially helpful for working with adverse childhood experiences and all kinds of general trauma that can trigger the onset of chronic diseases. The pdf includes tips on how to choose a therapist, links to websites, and access to lists of therapists around the world to help you find someone near you.
- Learn more about 2 less visible kinds of trauma that also increase risk in this companion video
- Follow me & like my facebook page, where I share research, news articles, personal updates and blog posts
- Subscribe to my youtube channel for future videos
- Sign up to get blog posts by email along with updates on upcoming surveys, info on ACEs and more
- Read my free ebook series about the science and connection between trauma and chronic illness (see below).
I hope these resources are helpful.
Until next time!