Most of us experience trauma at some level, not just war veterans who witness and experience horrific terror, but simply by growing up as vulnerable children in a world where many parents are themselves traumatized and can’t always hold that vulnerability safe for a child. You might mistakenly think that you must experience incest, child abuse, parental abandonment, or living in a war zone in order to be traumatized, but trauma can be much more subtle. Psychologist Dawson Church, PhD defines a traumatizing event as something that is:
- Perceived as a threat to the person’s physical survival
- Overwhelms their coping capacity, producing a sense of powerlessness
- Produces a feeling of isolation and aloneness
- Violates their expectations
In his book Psychological Trauma, Dawson gives the example of Martie’s traumatizing event, which could have lasting consequences but might be easily overlooked if you were not attuned to the kinds of events that can traumatize a child.
When I was growing up, I idolized my older brother Gary. But he was pretty rough with me. He was six years older than I was. One day when I was three and he was nine, he wanted to have a “wrestling match.” He “won” by lying on top of me. I couldn’t breathe and I began to panic. Gary just laughed when he saw me struggling. I almost passed out. When he rolled off me, I began to cry uncontrollably. My mother came in, and I tried to explain what happened. He told her it was nothing. I was just being a crybaby. Mom told me, “Big girls don’t cry.”
While it might be easily dismissed as just children tussling, this example meets all four criteria for a traumatizing event. Martie thought she was going to die when Gary lay on top of her, so she perceived a threat to her survival. She tried to cope by pushing him off, but he was too big so her coping attempt failed and she felt powerless. Being smothered by her brother violated her expectation that her family would keep her safe. When her mother failed to support and comfort her by dismissing her emotions with “Big girls don’t cry,” she was left feeling isolated and alone.
By this definition of trauma, almost all of us have experienced multiple traumatizing events in our lifetimes. In my case, I had a fairly benevolent childhood, but 12 years of medical training caused me to experience multiple events that meet this criteria for trauma. I also was held up at gunpoint by two masked gunmen in my twenties and had full on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder afterward. Most recently, I was attacked by a pit bull and started having PTSD-like flashbacks right afterward. Knowing what I know about the link between unresolved trauma and physical illness, I wanted to be proactive about healing the trauma right away. I am lucky to have at my fingertips a variety of gifted and ethical healers who treat trauma. I reached out right away and asked for help. The flashbacks stopped and haven’t come back.
Unhealed Trauma Predisposes to Disease
As I wrote about in Mind Over Medicine, there is a substantial amount of data linking mental health issues with physical disease. This is not to suggest “it’s all in your head.” It’s absolutely in your body! It’s simply that the physiological changes that occur in the body as the result of unhealed trauma and its associated stress, anxiety, and depression translates into conditions in the body that make you susceptible to physical ailments. In a landmark 1990 study of 17,421 patients, Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) collaborated on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which has resulted in over 50 peer-reviewed scientific articles. Patients were interviewed to determine whether they had experienced any of ten traumatizing events in childhood:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Mother treated violently
- Household substance abuse
- Household mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
The study revealed that traumatizing childhood events are commonplace. Two-thirds of individuals reported at least one traumatizing childhood event. 40% of the patients reported two or more traumatizing childhood events, and 12.5% reported four or more. These results were then correlated with the physical health of the interviewed patients, and researchers discovered a dose-response. Traumatizing events in childhood were linked to adult disease in all categories—cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, bone fractures, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, depression, smoking, and suicide. The average age of patients in this study was 57 years old, which means that childhood trauma can have a delayed effect on the body, making it entirely possible that something that happened 50 years ago may be predisposing someone to illness in the here and now. The more Adverse Childhood Events an individual reported, the sicker and more resistant to treatment they were.
The Good News: Trauma Can Be Healed
If you’re someone who checks “yes” to these and many other traumatizing events, you might be feeling anxious right about now. Does this mean that if you’ve experienced trauma in your life, you’re now a ticking time bomb just waiting to get sick? Does it mean that you won’t be healed from your chronic illness? Does it mean the damage is done and it’s too late to undo it?
No no no. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. The good news is that we now understand that unresolved trauma, whether from childhood or adulthood, can be treated and cured. Such treatment may also have direct effects on physical health.
Psychologists didn’t always know this. They used to believe that children who experienced severe trauma were sort of damaged goods, at risk for many other challenges in adulthood—such as physical and mental illness, addiction, criminal behavior, domestic violence, obesity, and suicide. Such trauma was believed to be largely untreatable. Now, thanks to evolving methodologies for treating trauma successfully, such as Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Advanced Integrative Therapy (AIT).
These cutting edge treatments for trauma recognize that talk therapy is inadequate to treat trauma. In fact, it can actually be harmful and retraumatizing, not to mention ineffective. When traumatized people are asked to replay the trauma through talk therapy, they often dissociate from their bodies, escaping into a safe witness consciousness, where they discuss the trauma from this disembodied, numbed out witness position, since that’s what they had to do to cope during the initial trauma. The newer trauma treatments make use of the understanding that trauma can only be truly healed when you stay in your body while addressing the often overwhelming emotions that accompany trauma, titrating your exposure to the trauma in small doses so as not to disembody and dissociate. Newer techniques for treating trauma often require very little talking, are careful to avoid retraumatizing, and can be very effective, quick, and permanent—with surprising and exciting effects not just on mental health, but on physical health, especially for those recalcitrant conditions that fail to respond to even the best Western or alternative medical treatment.
To Treat Disease, We Must Normalize and Treat Trauma
We know from copious data studying war veterans with PTSD in VA hospitals that, without any doubt, trauma and illness are linked. Yet in spite of all the solid scientific data linking trauma and disease, conventional Western medicine still tends to turn a blind eye to this strong correlation, and many patients are also resistant to considering treatment of trauma as part of a prescription for a healthy body. When was the last time your doctor told you to get treatment for your trauma as part of your cancer therapy, autoimmune disease, or heart disease? If you were asked to get trauma treatment as part of comprehensive, integrative medical therapy, how would you react? In my experience, even very progressive integrative medicine doctors rarely bring this up. Instead of focusing on drugs or surgery, they point you to a healthier diet, an herbal supplement, or a whole bunch of expensive functional medicine laboratory tests that aren’t usually covered by insurance.
But what if no drug, surgery, diet, supplement, or fancy lab test can cover up the ongoing, toxic effects of unhealed trauma on the body?
What if everything else is merely a Band-Aid, perhaps providing temporary relief but never fully healing the root cause that makes you vulnerable to illness over and over?
What if trauma is at the root of many illnesses in many patients, and until we treat it, even the most cutting edge medical technologies may fail to fully work?
Perhaps the block around treating trauma as part of a comprehensive medical treatment plan lies in the stigma many attach to trauma, as if it’s some sort of weakness to have survived a traumatizing event. I suspect that much of the resistance stems from shame about the traumatizing events, which is why the work sociologist Brené Brown, PhD is doing around shame and vulnerability is so important. If shame causes us to bury our trauma in a trauma capsule that we never touch, that trauma can turn into cancer. But if we cultivate shame resilience and we’re brave enough to be vulnerable and get help entering the trauma capsule, miraculous effects are possible. After all, there is absolutely no rational reason to be ashamed if you were sexually abused or abandoned or beaten or neglected. There need not be any shame around getting attacked or bullied or shamed or surrounded by war. Yet shame spirals are common, especially among children who are traumatized. Young psyches somehow translate the trauma into a story that we’re not good enough, or we are weak or unlovable.
Yet children are innocent, as are most adults who are traumatized. At the most basic level, it is our innocence that suffers the brunt of the wound, which means that our innocence needs our compassion and our nurturing, not our inner bullying, shaming, or self-violation. Human life is hard. We have to feel our pain and own up to it in order to heal it and alchemize it into soul growth. But even the most awakened people cannot typically bear to enter into the trauma capsule without loving, supportive, masterful help.
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About the Author
Lisa Rankin, MD, is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of “Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself”. She is on a grass roots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.