I first discovered the connection between stress, trauma and chronic illness in my own journey of trying to treat and manage chronic illness. In multiple support spaces for spoonies like me, I saw again and again how many sufferers had a history of profound stress or traumatic experiences. I became curious about the connection, and discovered the following:
- Stress creates inflammation in the body.
- PTSD increases the presence of inflammatory markers in the body.
- Inflammatory proteins are present in individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
- Inflammation is associated with mood disorders like depression as well as autoimmune diseases and infections.
- Early life stress increases inflammation and is associated with greater levels of depression.
This all makes sense. and is exciting to see because finally Western medicine is starting to understand what Eastern philosophy has already known – the mind and body cannot be separated. We see emotional and mental changes that are reflections of internal physical changes. The body creates inflammation in response to a threat. That threat can be many things. Some examples of situations that the brain may perceive as a threat include:
- Domestic violence being witnessed in childhood
- Being bullied
- Being a person of color in a white majority region/country
- Being LGBTQIA in a heteronormative area
- Growing up with uncertainty about having enough food to feed everyone in the home
- Growing up poor
- Being born to a mother who suffered depression during the pregnancy
- Living in a home where the parents are dealing with mental illness, unemployment, legal issues or other significant stressors
- Being told you’re “too sensitive”
- Being forced to take on responsibilities younger than normal
- Having a sibling who has disabilities or severe mental illness
- Parents fighting a lot
- Being a refugee or living in a war zone
- Experiencing any form of abuse, whether as a child or an adult
- Feeling like an outcast/being ostracized
How does a threatening situation cause physical or mental illness?
If the brain perceives a threat, it will trigger chemical reactions designed to help you deal with that threat. But if the threats are ongoing, then the body is getting overloaded with these “threat chemicals” and as the increased inflammation becomes chronic, the chance of illness and disease increases as the body is more and more exposed to high levels of inflammation. This chance of illness includes autoimmune conditions which occur because the immune system begins to perceive parts of your own body as part of the threat. That inflammation is also implicated in other “spoonie” conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome. So, the link between stress, trauma and chronic illness becomes much clearer.
So what do we do about this? We help the brain find peace and relaxation, which for some people will mean processing the memories of threatening events. I’ll talk more about various methods of helping the body turn off that threat response in a future blog. If you have any questions about this topic please feel free to contact me to discuss further.