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!
I stumbled across your post on Facebook which led me to your page. This article. …. mind blown. It makes so much sense. I went through a five year period of intense chronic stress before my body started quitting on me. Trauma….. you just opened my eyes. Thank you so much!
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Hi Gwen – Once things start to make sense in this way it opens up a whole new world. So glad it was helpful and you are so very welcome.
Being a body stress release practitioner, I see this almost daily.
Releasing tension (stress) which is caught up in the muscles, have a major emotional impact on all of my clients.
Thank you for this article, i enjoyed it a lot.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks so much for chiming in – it’s helpful to know the remarkable array of approaches that can make a difference for individuals with chronic illness!
Christopher M Foley MD says
There are many reasons why we are in the middle of a dramatic uptake in autoimmune complexes of all kinds. The stress on the microbiome, terrible dietary practices, the perturbation of healthy sleep habits by electronic media, constant exposure to EMF (not anyone device, but the aggregate), and her horrendous and immoral promotion of intense vaccine schedules many of which are literally a hoax in terms of safety and efficacy, low vitamin D levels, etc.
The modern healthcare practitioner pays no attention to any of these things but rather kicks autoimmune disease down the road to the internist and/or rheumatologist for immunosuppressive therapy with everything from NSAIDs and prednisone to mycophenolate and a massive new alphabet soup of various biologics.
There are many truths in this very thoughtful blog, and thank you for writing it.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
The role of environmental risk factors in risk for chronic illness is increasing and appears to involve many complex interactions, and, as you say the focus continues to be placed on what are often the most visible / objectively measurable aspects of the disease process. I’ll be publishing a set of posts about the history of the connection between serious life events and type 1 diabetes in the next few months – how it was dismissed and remains poorly recognized despite a series of increasingly large and prospective studies all finding similar links. The perception that the effects of trauma are solely psychological may be part of the reason for this decreased awareness. I’ve received your email and will respond shortly. Thanks so much for commenting.
Catherine Shortt says
I believe the list of chronic illnesses sparked by trauma includes mental illness. So much suffering and lifelong dependence on harmful medications could be prevented/alleviated if the trauma was addressed.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
I completely agree with you. In fact, the research is even stronger and more common showing links between trauma and mental illness.
Because the research is much less common in chronic illness, and because so many with chronic illness have been told a history of trauma implies it’s all in their heads or that it’s psychological (unfortunate, incorrect, out of date, but frequent nonetheless) I focus almost entirely on links between trauma and chronic disease on my blog.
All of us with chronic symptoms, however, could gain so much from a wider knowledge of the long-term effects of trauma. It’s beginning to happen as a result of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) studies in particular. And trauma-informed practices are starting to pop up around the country, in schools, in mental health clinics, and elsewhere. It’s still a tiny minority but it has started!
Let’s continue to spread the word.
As a fellow sufferer of ME/CFS I commend you on your insightful article. I have always believed my CFS was due to trauma but I am just a patient. After reading DR Gabor Mate, Bessel and co books and seeing some of the rewiring programs help people recover from CFS I have dedicated myself to finding a way to get this trauma to exit my body. Last year I began Irene Lyons course and after 10 yrs I can leave the house.
I particularly loved a sentence of yours where you stated symptoms are defences to protect you. . I still have a long way to go and am now old at 71 but the science of all this thrills me….Porges Levine and co.
Looking forward to your book and wondering if it’s still possible for a diabetic patient to recover if they removed the trauma,
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Congrats on this huge victory of being able to step out of your house. What a wonderful response to this work! The nervous system / trauma view is so hugely helpful, encouraging and compassionate. And it’s helpful to think of it as an intelligent process gone awry rather than something permanently broken. I am familiar with everyone you mention and this is how I work as well. For additional resources, if you aren’t familiar with Dan Neuffer’s CFS unravelled take a look at this inspiring story of recovery using similar tools.
Re Diabetes – It depends on the kind of diabetes ie: type 1? type 2?. Some (many?) people are able to reverse type 2 by decreasing carbs or removing them completely and doing ketogenic type of diets along with exercise and weight loss (although not everyone is overweight and I’m not sure this works for everyone. Type 2 diabetes is not just a “lifestyle” issue and trauma can play a role as well). Google recoveries and you’ll find many inspiring stories.
I don’t know of anyone who has recovered from type 1 – however – the research suggests trauma plays a role here too and I therefore wonder just how much supporting the nervous system as you refer to might make inroads here as well. Here are my blog posts about type 1 diabetes if you’d like to learn more.