Trauma: The Root Cause of Chronic Disease?

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By Emily Holler

We all experience trauma in our lives. It fairly unavoidable as a human being. Even the act of being born is a potentially traumatic experience. But what happens when the trauma we experience is severe and frequent? How does this affect us in the long term? Could intense trauma actually be one of the root causes of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer?

‘Emotional trauma occurs when we are subjected to experiences that cause us to feel intense threat,’ explains psychologist Simon DuBois. ‘When someone experiences an isolated traumatic event, we expect there to be distress for some months as they move through the grief, shock, fear and confusion of what occurred. We begin to worry if these experiences last more than 6 months however; as a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be indicated.’

‘All traumatic events may have short term implications or long term implications,’ explains clinical  psychologist Deirdre Middlehurst, ‘traumatic events disrupt the normal regulation of our physical, emotional, psychological and physiological functioning for a period of time. This generally has a negative impact on the individual and produces symptoms indicative of the degree of impact. Common symptoms experienced following trauma include but are not limited to; hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal, insomnia, flashbacks to the event, dissociative states, avoidance of triggering memories, places or people, intense fear, anxiety, depressed mood, alienation and isolation.’

In 1998 a Kaiser study was published that demonstrated a clear connection between childhood trauma (referred to as adverse childhood events) and an increased likelihood of ‘multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults,’ such as heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, and liver disease. Another study showed that increased childhood trauma also placed individuals at a higher risk for autoimmune diseases along with headaches, anxiety, insomnia and depression.

‘Traumatic stress can place an incredible load on the entire body’, asserts Simon DuBois, ‘and when this occurs over a protracted period of time, the development of chronic illness is very likely.’ This is a sentiment that is shared by our Somatic Resonance practitioner Miles Sanderson who notes that, ‘Depending on the gravity or intensity of the trauma, it can lead to chronic illness or disease. It can compromise the nervous system (NS) which plays a major role in homeostasis within the body's systems. With less resilience in the NS it becomes less easy for the body to create wellbeing and return to health. Over extended periods of time this can lead to disease or chronic illness.’

So given that trauma is so likely to cause long-term physiological damage, what can we do to mitigate its effects if we have been exposed to a traumatic event? Our hypnotherapist Karin Plummer suggests that, ‘when we first experience trauma, it’s important to seek psychological first aid in the first hours, days and weeks after the event. This approach aims to reduce the initial response to trauma by helping the traumatised person to feel safe, connected to others and empowered to help themselves.’

So if we have experienced significant traumas and are now manifesting chronic disease, how do we reverse the damage so that we can find the pathway to healing? Surely the fact that we’ve been the unfortunate recipient of some traumatic experiences doesn’t have to equal a lifetime of chronic disease and premature mortality.

Clearing the effects of long-held trauma and childhood trauma can be quite complex however. Karin says, ‘to clear the effects of trauma we need to work holistically and use modalities that not only work on the physical aspects of the trauma response, but also the emotional and spiritual levels. The energy of trauma is held in the subconscious mind, not consciously, so we need to access a client’s deeper self.’

‘When there is trauma there will be a charge left in the nervous system,’ explains Miles Sanderson. ‘In effect at the time of the trauma, the system initiates a self protective or defensive response that gets locked in the system. Working with a trauma informed professional can help to discharge excess energy from the system to take pressure off other bodily functions which will then promote healing within.’

‘Many symptoms of traumatic exposure relate to the over activation of the fight or flight response,’ says Simon DuBois. ‘Any therapeutic supports that can help switch this response down are vital. Talking therapies, vitamins and mineral supplements, relaxation strategies, sleep hygiene and body based therapies can all really help.’

Deirdre Middlehurst has been working in the area of trauma and PTSD for over 20 years. ‘In that time, I have seen and been in awe of the strength, courage and resilience of human beings,’ she says. ‘I've learned that each individual has within them the necessary resources to heal once the time is right for them and the correct treatment is available to them. Using EMDR (Eye Movement, Desensitisation and Reprocessing), and Somatic Mindfulness techniques, I have been privileged to witness in my clients experience the most profound healings from trauma.’

Miles Sanderson agrees: 'In my experience, greater wellbeing and relief from trauma is very achievable, however it does take a commitment from the client to ongoing sessions and work. There was a lifestyle created to live with trauma and thus there must be a lifestyle created to live without it. Generally it is not a quick easy fix, but with commitment good results are highly achievable. For me the most crucial aspect of working with people who have suffered from trauma is working and creating change in the present moment—as often people get pulled back to the time when the trauma happened. It is imperative to create a sense of safety for the client so that they can feel comfortable to move through what is held in their system.’