What’s the Link Between Trauma and Disease?
My father is a retired scientist.
When I was a child, he studied the impact of stress on the immune system of plants. The simplified version is that plants were exposed to known stressors, like over exposure to the sun, or a lack of water. Not only did the plants begin to naturally wither and die off, but they became more susceptible to pests and disease.
So, it is no surprise that, many years later, in my work with wellness, I am passionate about the connection between stress and disease.
At the root of disease, and pain in the body, we will likely find trauma.
While I am tempted to say that we will ALWAYS find trauma, I avoid absolutes. I think it is important to leave space for the outliers.
Trauma, when held in the body, whether physically or emotionally, creates an environment where disease and pain can take root and flourish.
Acknowledging this connection is not blaming someone for their illness or pain. Do I need to repeat that?
It is not someone’s fault if they were abused as a child, or have experienced the death of a loved one. These kinds of traumas happen and they impact us.
Trauma imprints upon our bodies in a way that begins to “wobble our system.”
A wobbly system is vulnerable to cellular and structural changes in the body—in other words, pain and disease.
How, exactly, does trauma trigger pain and disease, on a physiological level? That is a blog for another time, but I’ll give you a hint…Trauma creates a stress response. Stress responses trigger inflammation in the body. And inflammation is at the root of most injuries and disease. Obviously, that is a very simplified version. But, let’s stick with that for now.
Maybe you, or someone you know, is experiencing pain or disease and you think, “but there was no trauma involved.” And that’s where things begin to get interesting.
While I certainly don’t advocate that we go looking for trauma that doesn’t exist, I have found that once we identify the trauma that does exist, and is just safely tucked into our sub-conscious, it can be a powerful catalyst to healing. And that is why I take out my metaphorical magnifying glass and start looking for clues.
From my perspective, there is no such thing as a person who hasn’t experienced trauma. We could even say that trauma is inevitable. Even so, it still affects us.
But, part of the issue is that, in our culture, we have a misunderstanding of the definition of trauma.
A basic definition that has served me, and my clients, is that trauma is an experience where you felt powerless.
Have you ever had one of those? Many?
It doesn’t have to be major trauma, like abuse, an accident, or the death of a loved one.
In my experience, people are deeply affected by what could be considered “daily living trauma.” Things like rejection from a friend or parent, a job or career loss, prolonged financial hardship, etc. These types of experiences are also categorized as chronic, or prolonged, toxic stress.
And these experiences can have just as much impact on our health, if not more. According to Dr. Mary Meagher, based on her research at Texas A&M University, “people exposed to chronic social conflict experience high levels of stress and consequent dysregulation of the immune system, thereby increasing vulnerability to infectious and autoimmune disease.”
The reason I put these daily stressors in the same category as trauma is because often the experiences that trigger daily stress are rooted in an earlier trauma that we, or someone in our family, experienced. That is why we are not all triggered by the exact same things. The events that trigger a stress response are hooking into an earlier imprint in our body.
And while the onset of some degeneration and disease happen within a year or two of a known trauma, many others won’t emerge until years or decades later, until more trauma compounds. This can make it more difficult to connect the dots.
Additionally, it becomes very difficult to identify traumas, when our culture has normalized some pretty traumatic life experiences.
So, when we consider a wider definition of trauma, most of us would be hard pressed to escape checking a few items on the list.
Why does past trauma continue to impact us?
There are certainly many reasons that past trauma continues to impact our well-being. In my experience, one of the largest reasons is that we have either repressed or suppressed the trauma, as a survival strategy. Since most traumatic imprints hang out in the sub-conscious, it becomes much more difficult to identify and address something that is veiled from us.
Suppression means we consciously choose not to think about something. Repression is an unconscious act. And, it is worth stressing that repressing or suppressing trauma is not a weakness of character. Our bodies and brains have a pretty advanced system in place to ensure our survival. Exactly why and how we do this deserves its own blog, as well, so I will leave it at that, for now.
To heighten the stakes even further, we have what is called a Negativity Bias.
Thoughts and events that we perceive as negative have a deeper impact on our psyche than things we perceive as positive. Therefore, it doesn’t take repeated or severe trauma for us to lean into a negative perception. And get this: there are even studies to suggest that our negativity bias begins to emerge when we are about six months old!
I often describe our experiences, as infants and small children, as having life or death consequences, because they actually did. And therefore, when these early imprints are triggered, through later life experiences, they also feel like life or death—but, at that point, it becomes confusing, because we don’t understand why the current experience is impacting us so deeply. It doesn’t appear to make sense.
Early impressions make deeper impressions.
If, at 45 years old, I get hit by a car, while crossing the road, I may be traumatized, but I have many years of data to inform my brain that I am usually safe. In contrast, if, at 3 years old, I get hit by a car, I don’t have all those years of data to ease my brain. Therefore, the imprint is more traumatic. The first five years, or so, of our life create our primary experiences—experiences that have a deep impact on us.
Now, because most of us don’t have significant memories of those first five years, we begin to see why many of our traumatic experiences are repressed—we were young, and often pre-verbal.
In my experience, the traumas that we have later in life, whether in adolescence or adulthood, are still patterned from an early childhood trauma—meaning that they were similar in tone to a trauma that we previously experienced. But, then, as I said, we often suppress those later memories, as well.
As passionate as I am on this topic, and as much as my own client work supports the above connections, you don’t have to take my word for it. There is a healthy body of scientific research connecting trauma and illness.
One of my favorite things to geek out on is the ACEs science. ACE is an acronym for Adverse Childhood Experiences, and the ACEs science refers to the research on the relationship between specific identified traumas that children experienced, and the resulting consequences, later in their life. Each type of trauma counts as one experience, or one point. And the higher your score, the greater likelihood that you become ill.
“The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study and subsequent surveys show that most people in the U.S. have at least one ACE, and that people with four ACEs— including living with an alcoholic parent, racism, bullying, witnessing violence outside the home, physical abuse, and losing a parent to divorce — have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and alcoholism.
“You can think of an ACE score as a cholesterol score for childhood trauma. For example, people with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic. Having an ACE score of 4 increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent, and suicide by 1200 percent.” (source)
When we begin to talk about the relationship between life experience and disease, one of the inevitable questions that emerge is, “What about babies?”
Babies often have pain and illness, and they haven’t really had any life experiences yet. True. But, our parents and grandparents have. While it can be difficult for people to accept, trauma can pass intergenerationally, so even as infants, we may be carrying the trauma of our ancestors.
And, of course, that doesn’t just apply to babies. At any age, we may still be carrying and living out the trauma of a previous generation.
We can approach this from a psychological angle. Franz Ruppert, professor of psychology at Munich University of Applied Sciences, who developed Constellation of the Intention, an evolution of Bert Hellinger’s Family Constellation work, that specifically targets trauma, states,
“I have learned from my many experiences, with clients, that the individual human psyche represents at least a four-generational phenomenon, sometimes even a fifth. What I mean is that the human psyche is an entity that is affected by a relational family network spanning four generations. A child may unconsciously resonate with the psychological state of his great-grandparents, as if not separate from them. Children usually are more strongly connected with the maternal line. So, a great grandmother’s traumatic experience can be reflected in the psyche of her great-grandchild.”
I have been training in Ruppert’s constellation approach, in the last year and a half, and the work is profound. But, if it sounds like too far of a stretch for you, you might want to focus, instead, on a more biological approach.
Are you familiar with the study of epigenetics?
Epigenetics is defined as the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. While we can’t point to epigenetics in a blanket way, or we run the risk of attributing factors to it, that cannot, yet, be proven, it certainly is a door to explaining some things that we don’t currently understand.
If you are new to epigenetics, you might enjoy reading this: READ ME LATER.
Dr. Rachel Yehuda, the Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and her team, have studied the effects of trauma on holocaust survivors and their offspring, noting that offspring are more vulnerable to the effects of stress and are more likely to experience symptoms of PTSD.
These are physiological changes that have happened to the children, based on the trauma experienced by the parent. It’s intriguing stuff. (source)
And then, there are the fascinating mouse studies, that I often find myself quoting.
Kerry Ressler, a neurobiologist and psychiatrist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleague, Brian Dias studied the epigenetic inheritance in laboratory mice, where mice were conditioned to associate a particular scent with pain (through, sadly, receiving electrical shocks), and two generations later the mice still had an aversion to the scent. (source)
Some of these studies are still in their infancy stages, but science is beginning to point to some things that will lead to a greater acceptance of both the relationship between trauma and illness, as well as the intergenerational impact of trauma.
Ultimately, none of this is to say that ALL trauma will lead to injury, illness or the decline of the body. It CAN have that effect, but it won’t necessarily have that result. It will depend on how you heal and integrate the trauma.
As Yehuda states, “A trauma is an event that changes you. It doesn’t have to change you for the negative.”
Trauma can often lead to spiritual growth.
But, even if a trauma has what you, or others, perceive as a negative impact on you, it doesn’t mean you are at fault.
In fact, I think the acceptance of the connection between trauma and disease is further complicated by some of our social perceptions. For example, according to Stephen Joseph, Ph.D., there are two points of view on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:
“First is the view that PTSD results from a stressor that is so overwhelming that, no matter what the person’s resources, they will develop PTSD. As such the diagnosis of PTSD does not reflect any personal vulnerability.
“The second is that people who develop PTSD are vulnerable in some way. As such the diagnosis of PTSD does reflect inner vulnerability.” (source)
That second definition is the one that might do us in. Because, as a culture, if we continue to choose to perceive vulnerability as a weakness, we are more inclined to accept the model of illness that positions disease as a randomly occurring event. We struggle to accept that our vulnerability is actually a strength.
The irony is that accepting and expressing our vulnerability may be a key to our return to wellness.
Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, who gained popularity through her viral TED talk, has this to say on the topic of vulnerability:
“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
If we allow ourselves the vulnerability to look into our own past experiences, including the tough stuff, to release old, painful imprints, we can more consciously approach our lives, which makes us better equipped to address current pain and disease, and potentially ward off future illness, as well.
And, isn’t that a worthwhile investigation?