How trauma can lead to chronic illness 

 March 8, 2019

If you've got chronic disease as an adult, it may be from trauma you experienced as a child. Autoimmune and inflammatory diseases are especially linked to traumatic events in childhood. That means that if you suffer from things like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel, or rheumatoid arthritis, you may find additional healing by addressing past traumatic events.


Not all autoimmune diseases or inflammatory diseases are caused by childhood trauma, of course. However, if you find yourself dealing with one or more chronic diseases, keep reading....you'll learn how these sometimes crazy, unrelated symptoms can actually have a basis in your physiology, and that there's something you can do about it!

In this post, I give an overview of trauma and what it does to your body. In this post, I've got a lot more details for you to help you relate more to what you might be experiencing.

The difference between trauma and stress

I'm going to differentiate trauma from stress, although a lot of the symptoms between trauma and stress (especially constant and high level stress) are the same. There are important differences when it comes to getting treatment and how the medical community defines the two. Today I'm going to be talking specifically about trauma.

That being said, if you have not experienced trauma, but you've experienced stress or a lot of stress, then keep reading because this information can apply to you as well.

Trauma occurs when we experience an event that is associated with feelings of fear, terror, panic, or helplessness.

At the same time, those feelings are accompanied by physical changes in our body's systems. Those changes essentially get us all ramped up and prepare us to take action, to protect ourselves, and possibly to save our life. 

We become traumatized when we get into this state where everything is all ramped up, but we don't dissipate that energy. We don't fight, we don't run away, or we don't do something else to get rid of that energy.

And so what happens is that energy stays inside of our body and we constantly feel like we're under threat. Now, we have this chronic state of kind of re-experiencing the traumatic experience over and over and over.

Ultimately, the way to heal from the trauma is to dissipate that energy from your body. The symptoms you are dealing with are not something that's just in your head. It's something that's actually contained within your body. Your body was doing its normal thing to try to protect you and save you and keep you alive.

Fight-or-flight vs. rest and digest

To understand what's happening within your body, we're going to talk about the two main systems of your autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system contains or has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems automatically regulate the majority of what happens in the background within your body so that you can survive without having to pay attention to it. These systems take care of things so that you can breathe, and so that you can have normal digestion of your food, for example. All of these processes happen without you having to give them any conscious attention. Thank goodness!

The sympathetic nervous system gets activated during a traumatic event. It's also activated when we experience high levels of stress (especially constant and repeated stress).

The sympathetic nervous system is known as the fight-or-flight system.

There's also another part of that response that's called the freezing and we'll talk about that as well.

The parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as the rest and digest system.

These two systems, your sympathetic and your parasympathetic, are like two parts of this scale or this balance. They work in concert with one another and you have fluctuations as you go about your day with the level of activity in these two systems.

Ideally, what you want is for your parasympathetic system to be the one that is predominant, which means everything is going smoothly, you feel peaceful, you feel happy, you feel calm, your digestion works really well. You don't have any problems with your stomach, or your gut, or with your memory or with processing your emotions, you're just happy in your experience of being alive. It's easy for you to do your work and to interact with your friends and to have healthy relationships. That's the parasympathetic nervous system. 

And if right now if you're thinking," Oh my gosh, that sounds wonderful!" well, then you probably need a little work to clear out some of the hormones and emotions and things that are keeping you in that fight or flight!

What 'fight-or-flight' does to your body

When you experience a traumatic event, your sympathetic nervous system automatically kicks into high gear and it happens immediately. It's preparing your to defend yourself in some way.

When this system kicks in, a lot of processes that you don't need are shut off. All of the systems that you do not need that normally run in the background are going to be turned off or turned down so they don't work so well.

All of your energy is going to be directed to your heart, into your lungs and to your muscles. 

Your heart, lungs and muscles are those parts that you need most to be able to engage in combat with somebody, or to hightail it and to run away as fast as you can.

Now you're threatened so you go on high alert, you go into a heightened state of arousal which means that everything is ramped up.

What happens when fight-or-flight is turned up:

  • One of the things that gets shut off is your higher level thinking and processing. This is good because if you stop to think and weigh all your options, it will be too late.
  • Your pupils are going to dilate so you can take in more light and improves your your vision.
  • Your heart is going to start to pound. I'm sure you have felt that before at some point. It starts to beat faster and harder to pump more blood through your system to give you more oxygen to your lungs.
  • Your lungs are going to dilate (the tissues in the lungs) so you can take in more oxygen.
  • Your skeletal muscles are going to get more glucose, which is what they need for their energy to go into quick action.
  • If it's also a highly highly traumatic event, your bladder and your bowels are going to let go because you don't need anything stored in there. If you're going to try to run you want to be as light as possible.

These things are all normal and your body is doing this to help you. It is not your enemy, it's your friend. And sometimes if you get stuck in this, it can feel like your body is not your friend. These are all the things that happen to help prepare you for your flight or flight.

Now since that mechanism is turned on, and you're in this high state of arousal, everything else from the parasympathetic side gets turned down or turned off.

What happens when rest and digest is turned down:

  • Digestion is either going to slow down or just stop. And the first part of digestion is the saliva production and your mouth so you might experience now a dry mouth.
  • Your stomach and your intestines aren't going to be taking your food or moving the food through them because you don't need to be digesting your food.

The biggest thing is that almost all of the internal organs in your gut are going to stop doing what they normally do. You're turning off digestion and you're getting your heart and your lungs and your muscles turned on to help you deal with this threat.

Now you're prepared to deal deal with the experience.

If you're able to deal with it effectively, you express all of that energy through your physical actions. Then, things come back into balance.

When you are no longer under threat and you have processed that threat, now the sympathetic nervous system gets calmed down and the parasympathetic nervous system becomes more active again.

This means that your muscles can relax, your heart be can return to normal, you don't have to breathe so hard and so heavy anymore, your digestion can start up again, and everything calms down. This is the normal process of what is meant to happen to us.

This is also what happens to a small degree, much smaller than dealing with high level trauma, when you do something like go on stage to speak or perform in some way, or when you're participating in a sporting event.

You feel nervous and kind of anxious and tense, and that's your sympathetic nervous system that's ramped up a little bit to prepare you for that event. Then you go on stage and you perform, or you get out on the field and you start playing and you are dissipating that energy.

Ultimately, things calm down, your rest and digest system takes back over, and balance is restored.

Physical symptoms of unprocessed trauma

Unfortunately, in many, many cases, when we experienced trauma, this process of getting ramped up, expressing the energy, and calming back down, is not what happens. What happens is we stay stuck in fight or flight, and when we're stuck in that state, all of the normal functioning from the rest and digest is not working properly.

Some physical symptoms that you might experience if you have trauma that you have not yet processed:

  • Increased heart rate at rest
  • Shallow breathing up in the chest and not the belly
  • tension in your neck and in your shoulders
  • Less oxygen going to all of your tissues (this means tight, sore muscles that can't do as much work as they normally would)
  • Poor digestion and absorption of food. All sorts of symptoms can come as a consequence of this. You'll likely notice troubles with the skin because you're not clearing things through your large intestine and through your bowels. A secondary way that your body tries to do that is by releasing things through the skin. Think hives, eczema, acne, and even psoriasis.
  • If you're not absorbing nutrients from food properly, you might also notice problems with your bones, ligaments, tendons, hair, and nails, because they're not getting the nutrients that they need (dry hair, brittle nails, frequent sprains or strains, osteoporosis, for example).
  • Difficulty with concentration, memory and thinking clearly
  • Difficulty sleeping (falling asleep, staying asleep or getting into deep, restorative sleep)
  • Difficulty losing weight. This is a combination of impaired sleep and excess adrenaline and cortisol that is now constantly going through your body.
  • Adrenal fatigue, thyroid issues. The adrenals kick in to high gear to help your body react to trauma. Over time, the adrenals essentially experience burn out and you're constantly tired.
  • Development of diabetes (all of the extra glucose in your bloodstream)
  • Difficulty getting sexually aroused and difficulty getting an erection

This is a list of symptoms you could have but it doesn't even include all of the possible medical diagnoses you could get because of these symptoms.

All of these things are important to understand because now you can look at the symptoms that you're experiencing in your physical body and you can say, "okay, I am not crazy!" These things potentially are all related because they're all part of this autonomic nervous system and they all get turned on and off together.

Emotional symptoms of unprocessed trauma

Our emotional state of being, our mental state of being, and how we relate to ourselves and to other are all also going to change, and sometimes very dramatically in response to the trauma.

In many cases, there is a difference between those who experience an acute, one time traumatic experience, such as a single act of violence or getting into a car accident or having surgery (surgery, by the way, is very traumatic for the body) and those people who are chronically traumatized or have experienced very high levels of trauma.

If you grew up in a home where you were abused on an ongoing basis, that's going to be different than someone who has a one time car accident.

Some emotional symptoms that you might experience if you have trauma that you have not yet processed:

  • Always on high alert, feeling ramped up and waiting for something bad to happen
  • Easily prone to anger (you feel like you're being attacked and you need to defend yourself). This could be anger, but also irritability, defensiveness, or quick to fight.
  • Crying easily
  • Having flashbacks of the event(s)
  • More likely to stay away from others and avoid social situations
  • Anxiety or depression or both
  • Becoming unfeeling, dissociating from events, relationships, or normal daily interactions
  • Being passive, withdrawn, unemotional

Earlier, I mentioned that there is also a freezing response, not just the fight-or-flight response. This is the next step in the response cascade. If you're not physically able to fight or to run away, you'll freeze.

Freezing is more likely to happen to those who have been chronically traumatized, or highly traumatized.

This is a protective mechanism where you shut down as much as possible. It's the body's way of making the experience more tolerable by distancing you emotionally (dissociation) and increasing the body's ability to tolerate pain.

Becoming passive, withdrawn, unemotional, or depressed are all symptoms of a freeze response that hasn't been expressed and worked through.

So you have the physical symptoms that you can experience from not processing your trauma, which are related even though they may seem completely unrelated. And then you have this emotional, mental kind of way of being that you interact with the world after experiencing the traumatic events.

Finding healing from trauma

it's so critical to process and learn how to find healing from the trauma because it's contained within the memory of your body.

You don't have to experience the event in real time to actually trigger the fight-or-flight response within your system. It can happen from a memory and in that case, you just end up being re-traumatized, so we need to learn how to process it and express it and safe environment. .

We will talk in the next few posts about different ways to heal from this trauma, but this is very similar to having trapped emotions.

When I work with people that have trapped emotions, and I've worked with those that have experienced continual ongoing trauma in childhood, and those that have experienced the just acute types of trauma, but in both cases, you get these trapped energies within the body. And so they need to be released. Energy healing work is one way to do that.

The body also naturally has in place mechanisms of shaking or trembling, to release those energies. But the critical thing is that it needs to be done in an environment where you feel safe to allow those things to happen and not suppressing or turning those things back off again, because otherwise you just perpetuate the cycle of the trauma.

My goal is to empower you to understand how your body works in response to trauma, and also to some degrees in response to stress, so that you can understand that there is something that you can do that it's not just in your head, and that you're not crazy.

But your body has also embodied (literally!) and carries these emotions and these hormones and these experiences within it. And there are ways that you can release and heal from these things.

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About the author

Jen Bessire, PhD, is a Christian medium, author, and healer. After 23 years as a physical therapist, God called her to her current path in 2014. She delights in helping others come unto Christ, heal generational trauma, and create a life of freedom. God is calling you - are you listening?

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