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 developed symptoms soon after a traumatic event or wonder if trauma at other times in their lives could have affected risk. The research shows that a history of trauma is very common in chronic illness and that it’s not psychological. There are also therapies to help you heal the effects of trauma that can also help with symptoms of chronic illness. You’ll find a loose transcript of the video below.
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, 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 suggest it’s psychological.
What I discovered as a physician and looking at studies in all 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 traumatic event is before the onset of their chronic illnesses.
This may have happened as one significant event. As an 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 your chronic illness or that triggered the start of your symptoms occurs in the weeks or months just before everything started. 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 frequently 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 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 because it’s actually possible 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.
Links & Resources
Learn more in this summary of how trauma affects risk for chronic illness in The Chronic Illness Model
Adverse Childhood Experiences and risk for chronic illness
Stress and trauma before onset of chronic illness
10 Tools for working with chronic illness
Therapies for healing the effects of trauma to also address symptoms of chronic illness
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I hope these resources are helpful.
Until next time!