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Childhood trauma and autoimmune disease have a complicated relationship. I am an autoimmune warrior. I am also a trauma survivor. What do those two things have to do with each other? For me, a lot. This post explores their connection, citing research, and draws from my personal experience. I hope to shed some light for you in a way that aids in your self-healing.

Connecting Body Mind and Heart

When I discovered the link between my childhood trauma and my battles with autoimmune diseases, it was a revelation that changed everything. 

Although it was extremely challenging, I navigated the complex journey from trauma-triggered responses to achieving peace by using healthy strategies. To heal, I used journaling, nature, travel, talk therapy, meditations, EMRD, affirmations, grief work, recovery, and mindfulness.

Sometime  during my intense trauma work, I made the connection between my mental health and physical health dynamic. Specifically, that each can and does trigger the other. This realization benefited me emotionally, mentally, and physically. One positive takeaway is that today I enjoy remarkable health, despite having five autoimmune disorders. For that I am truly grateful, and my goal is to share my wins to help you.

Healing As An Adult

I’ve lived the challenges of managing multiple conditions of the mind and body. My experiences have led me to a deeper understanding of how my childhood traumas have impacted my physical well-being. Of primary importance is that the trauma is not my fault. The autoimmune disorders are not my fault. This seems obvious, but if you can relate to the struggle of misplacing blame upon yourself and complicating your mental and physical health, then you get it.

This post is for my fellow self-healing women carrying the intertwined realities of trauma and autoimmune diseases. Together, we’ll explore their connection, backed by studies, and share insights into how recognizing this relationship can empower us toward better health.

The relationship between autoimmune disorders and trauma is complex and multifaceted. Here’s a brief overview of how these conditions are interconnected:

Childhood Trauma and Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues, perceiving them as foreign invaders. This can lead to a variety of conditions, depending on the area of the body affected. 

Trauma, particularly psychological trauma such as that experienced through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can profoundly affect both the brain and the body’s stress response systems.

trauma and the body. author in black and white photo

Research suggests that prolonged exposure to stress and trauma can lead to dysregulation of the stress control system in your body called the HPA axis.  The HPA axis is the central component of the body’s stress response system. A dysregulation here can contribute to an overactive immune response, a hallmark of autoimmune conditions. 

PTSD and Central Nervous System Burnout

Another negative effect PTSD can have on the body is the sometimes called “central nervous system burnout” or chronic stress response. This condition reflects the body’s reduced capacity to cope with stress due to the prolonged activation of the stress response system. It can lead to a range of symptoms including fatigue, cognitive impairments, and increased susceptibility to illness, potentially affecting the immune system’s functioning and contributing to autoimmune diseases.

Cortisol and Physical / Mental Illness 

The Mayo Clinic explains that stress can cause serious problems for both your mind and body. When your body reacts to stress too much, it can lead to health issues like anxiety, depression, stomach problems, and trouble sleeping.

Childhood Trauma and Autoimmune Disease connection - author in darkness sitting on porch feeling alone

Being exposed to the stress hormone cortisol for a long time can mess up many body functions, making you more likely to get various health issues. 

Hypervigilance and The Brain

Did you know that trauma can rewire the brain and lead to physical changes? This rewiring keeps the brain and nervous system stuck in a state of high alert, also known as hypervigilance. This makes healing a challenge. 

Example:

When I was a child, my father exploding in unpredictable anger. I learned to anticipate these dangerous outbursts and either get away (flight) or try to appease him (fawn). Over years of this anticipated anxiety, which created an excess of fight or flight response hormones, changed my body’s nervous system.

Fight, Flight, Freeze Response

An effect of trauma on the brain during the processing of threats is the problem of ongoing fight or flight responses. Constantly on high alert, the body’s hormones flood the endocrine system in ways the fight/flight/freeze response was not intended. This condition can lead to mental or physical illness or both, often resulting in a diagnosis of PTSD. 

Example:

When I was a child, my mother frequently left me alone. Sometimes at public places, other times with my sexually abusive father. Over time, I came to accept this impacted me as an adult. The hysterical reaction to being left alone, physically or metaphorically, developed into fear of abandonment. Although an adult, I had unhealed trauma from those instances of neglect and abuse. Eventually, I was diagnosed with complex PTSD.

author struggles with abandonment issues as an adult, feeling afraid to be alone standing in a dark doorway

Trauma Stored In The Body

It is important for the body  to “shake off” trauma. This a natural response seen in animals that helps discharge the energy associated with traumatic events. But when this response is blocked in humans, especially children, it can lead to the trauma becoming stored in the body. This further contributes to chronic stress and negative health effects. I have found relief in releasing this stored trauma by mindfully moving my body to reconnect my five senses while in nature.

Example:

While the abuse and neglect occurred in my home, I continued to go on living as that was my normal. There was no resources or safe adults to process the trauma, or any way for me to understand it wasn’t my fault. So not only was the initial trauma (violence in my home, emotional and sexual abuse, etc), embedded into my muscles and tissue. As I physically tensed my body to brace for pain, the trauma cemented itself. I complicated this by blaming myself. This stayed in my body until adulthood.

Childhood Trauma and Susceptibility to Autoimmune Issues

There is evidence to suggest that individuals who experience childhood trauma are at a higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases later in life. These long term traumatic times can change how their immune system reacts to stress, leading to more inflammation and making their bodies more likely to attack themselves. Studies have found that people with difficult childhoods have a higher chance of getting these diseases later in life.

Trauma and Autoimmune Healing

Understanding the connection between prolonged stress, trauma, and autoimmune diseases is crucial to self-healing. Learning what happens in the body during trauma, the normal fight/flight/fawn/freeze response, creates acceptance. DNA is programmed to flood the nervous system with hormones to help survive short spurts of danger. The body’s inborn natural defense system is designed to be quick, not last for years and years.

Learning that the childhood trauma creates an unnatural, prolonged fight / flight response, and that there was nothing I could do about it, gave me peace. Knowing that there are entire books dedicated to the topic for trauma survivors like me is humbling. It paves the way for reprogramming my life to reclaim the lost childhood joy and wonder, and therefore reverse what the trauma stole from me.

author bending by the water's edge in solitude

Today as an adult I understand that my small body did an amazing job of keeping me alive and safe during the trauma. And that the complex PTSD is a normal consequence of what my body did back then to keep me safe and alive. 

Example:

In therapy, learning to identify triggers and slowly, mindfully breathe into the anxiety, made space for healing. As I learned to be with the trigger and provide a sense of safety through breath work and self soothing, my body created new neural-pathways. As I learned to pause and stay present in the moment, the internal paths to reacting in fear were slowly changed. How do I know? Because I used to react with terrified emotions and behavior. But since implementing the strategies, I don’t anymore.

author filled with joy on hiking trail

Using a Holistic Approach

Managing autoimmune diseases and managing trauma responses and triggers share several similarities in their approach. Using a holistic perspective on health and well-being, treating the body and the mind, is key. Here are nine ways these management strategies align, emphasizing self-care, understanding, and resilience:

Awareness and Education

Just as understanding the triggers and patterns of trauma responses is crucial, knowing the signs, symptoms, and triggers of autoimmune diseases helps in managing them more effectively. Education about one’s condition empowers individuals to take proactive steps in their care.

Stress Management

Both managing autoimmune diseases and trauma responses require effective stress management techniques. Stress can exacerbate symptoms of autoimmune diseases and trigger trauma responses. Practices such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises are beneficial in regulating the body’s stress response.

Diet and Nutrition

Nutrition plays a key role in managing both conditions. Anti-inflammatory diets, which are often recommended for autoimmune diseases, can also support overall brain health and mitigate some effects of trauma by reducing inflammation in the body. Eating healthy avoids treating trauma triggers with compulsions like sugar.

Listening to Your Body

Tuning into the body’s signals is essential for both managing autoimmune diseases and trauma responses. Recognizing early signs of flare-ups or emotional distress allows for timely interventions to prevent worsening of symptoms.

Stunning displays of various roses in the International Rose Test Garden at Washington Park, showcasing a serene environment perfect for a leisurely best easy hike near Portland

Self-Care Practices

Prioritizing self-care is vital in managing both autoimmune diseases and trauma. This includes adequate sleep, healthy eating, physical activity, and engaging in activities that promote relaxation and joy. Self-care helps in maintaining a balance and supports healing.

Seeking Support

Just as individuals with autoimmune diseases benefit from the support of healthcare professionals, support groups, and communities, those dealing with trauma responses also find strength in therapy, support groups, and understanding communities. Shared experiences can offer comfort and practical advice.

chronic illness best easy hikes near portland

Personalized Coping Strategies

Both conditions necessitate personalized coping strategies. What works for one person in managing their autoimmune disease or trauma response might not work for another. It’s important to develop a personalized plan that addresses individual needs and symptoms.

More and more research shows that stress from bad experiences, especially from PTSD or tough childhoods, can lead to autoimmune diseases. It’s important to take care of both your mind and body. Getting help early, support for your mental health, and ways to handle stress and reduce inflammation could help stop or manage autoimmune diseases for people who have had trauma.

Final Thoughts On Childhood Trauma And Autoimmune Disease

The past is over and regardless of how and why my body developed autoimmune disorders doesn’t change the fact that  I have them. Furthermore, the traumatic events happened, and there’s no denying that fact. So why bother making the connection?

The reason I make the connection is because it greatly increases my compassion for the small innocent child I was trying to survive the trauma. My tiny body was fighting and flighting from the most tender age, and my autoimmune diseases carry evidence of that internally. 

author as a child sitting on a small chair

When I comprehend the full picture, I see the intense level of courage and strength I had, even during the most terrifying and damaging abuse and neglect. My autoimmune disorders are a reminder that I’m Still Here, alive and well. I am strong, brave and healthy. For me, that knowledge produces powerful self-healing. May it for you as well.

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