2265 North Clybourn Avenue    Chicago, IL 60614    P: 773.296.6700     F: 773.296.1131

Your Body Keeps Score

This may be an emotionally difficult Health Tip for some of you. Imagine you’re a small child and for as long as you can remember, no one’s face has ever lit up with a smile when you walked into a room. In fact, to avoid being struck by a family member, you’ve learned a variety of avoidance strategies, maybe even unconsciously tensing your muscles to ward off the blow or daily sexual assault. That’s home life.

Now try to imagine you’re one of the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children in North America sold every year into the sex trafficking industry. Worldwide, that number skyrockets to 2 million.

What about other sources of childhood emotional and physical trauma? Again, we’re not in the realm of the cheeriest breakfast reading. (Maybe a few minutes of Taylor Swift or ebay bidding, buying something—anything–just to get your mind off child abuse.) But we’re dealing with a vital issue here, one that might have a real bearing on you and your health.

A book entitled The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma is being hailed as a masterpiece. From the book’s description:
Renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust.  He shows how these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, play, yoga, and other therapies.

You and your biography
We’re only just beginning to grasp the emotional and physical consequences of being the victim of traumas as diverse as bullying or date rape. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study from Kaiser Permanente in California gave the simple questionnaire on page 1 of this link to 17,000 people with chronic illnesses and found an astonishing correlation between self-reported childhood trauma and a smorgasbord of apparently unrelated medical and psychological disorders.

More grim statistics:
— Since 2001, the number of people in the US killed by other family members exceeds the number of Americans dead in all Middle East conflicts.
— Most cases involve children in the household as witnesses, scarred for life, usually winding down their remaining childhood years shunted from foster home to foster home.

I first began to appreciate the consequences of childhood trauma more than 20 years ago when I attended a conference held by Carolyn Myss, PhD, whose book Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can had become required reading for members of the American Holistic Medical Association. Her phrase “Your biography becomes your biology” became a mantra for physicians attending her talks. It was Dr Myss who led me to shift dramatically from the medical history-taking techniques I’d learned in med school (which focused on current illness) to the biography-oriented interview all our physicians use at WholeHealth Chicago today.

Patients virtually never volunteer information about physically or emotionally traumatic childhoods, but in a quiet, private, and utterly nonthreatening setting, this information is begging to come to the surface. The Kaiser Permanente study allowed for total anonymity in its questionnaire, allowing participants to reveal deeply held secrets of the past without fear.

Health consequences of childhood trauma
Years after Dr Myss’ pioneering work, conventional medical journals started publishing articles on the connection between childhood trauma and adult health issues. When one study showed that 25% of fibromyalgia patients had endured some form of trauma when younger, doctors were shocked. The survey and results went on to be repeated in different parts of the world.

I devoted an entire chapter to this connection in my book Healing Fibromyalgia and to this day I’m surprised to find that most, if not all, of the dozens of fibro books available don’t mention it at all.

The Kaiser Permanente study showed that a group of psychological disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse) as well as seemingly unrelated physical illnesses (coronary artery disease and a variety of autoimmune diseases) were linked to respondents who had high ACE scores. It was estimated that high-scoring victims would lose 20 years of their expected life expectancies. Other confirmatory studies link childhood trauma with chronic migraines, diabetes, stomach ulcers, chronic lung disease, and a variety of arthritic disorders.

What’s happening in the body of a chronically traumatized child or young adult that renders him or her so susceptible to a possible lifetime of chronic physical or emotional ill health and potentially reduced longevity? As I tell my patients, if you’re a reasonably thoughtful person you know you’re pretty complicated, that there’s a lot more to you than anyone will ever know, regardless how close that “anyone” might be. Nod. Nod.

“Well,” I add, “Even with your keen self-awareness, you’re just scratching the most superficial surface. Your personal mind-body unit and its ability to record virtually everything that’s ever happened to you, as well as the consequences of recording all this information, whether you wanted to or not, is deep, complicated and profound.”

In fact, quite possibly everything you’ve experienced–from chronic depression and alcoholism to fibro and chronic fatigue, with susceptibilities to cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and early heart disease–is related to the effect of the chronic, deeply contained stress felt from all those terrible events and your brain’s massive memory capacity.

With fibromyalgia, the connection is apparent. Stress triggers the fight-or-flight response, but there are two kinds of stress.
— With sudden acute stress, such as a near-miss auto accident, adrenaline shoots into your muscles to prepare them for a quick response. Then they relax.
— Chronic stress leads to constant muscle contraction, which is fibromyalgia. It’s as if a person with fibro, protecting herself from old childhood trauma, unconsciously creates a suit of muscle-armor to protect her from re-injury. Except it’s a suit of armor that hurts and she can’t take it off. That’s fibro.

Healing childhood traumas
Learning about the connection between childhood trauma and such seemingly unrelated conditions as autoimmune disorders and cancer from Dr Myss years before scientists had published their research findings, I knew she was one of a small group of truly skilled medical intuitives.

Say what you will about the terms “intuitive” or “energy readings,” I’ve seen so many misdiagnosis disasters at our nearby mega-medical centers that it would behoove their medical staffs to hire Dr Myss to teach a course in energy reading.

Dr Myss explains that our immune systems are hard-wired to protect us from infections, like viruses and bacteria, and cancer cells. When a child is faced with repeated trauma, in an attempt at protection her immune system gets overly excited and then starts to turn against its own physical body. This situation is worsened by the child’s profound loss of self esteem (“Who could possibly love me?”) in the wake of the trauma. Combine low self esteem with an overly stimulated immune system and you’ve set the stage for an autoimmune disorder, immune system attacking her own body.

Cancer works in a similar setting, but this time low self esteem is combined with an utterly exhausted immune system that’s burned itself out trying to protect its owner. Such thinking, Dr Myss was first to point out, has the potential to be very badly misinterpreted if blame for an illness is placed on the victim.

“Am I responsible for my cancer?” “Did I deserve my autoimmune disease?” The answer is a loud and clear “Not at all!” These machinations in your mind-body are so deep within you as to be inaccessible to your conscious mind. Everyone in the field of mind-body medicine is quick to point out that the majority of people with cancer or virtually any chronic illness had perfectly happy childhoods and aren’t carrying larger knapsacks full of psychic baggage. For this majority, the causes are usually lifestyle choices such as poor diets, tobacco use, or lack of exercise. But for a small and important subset of people with chronic illnesses, if any “cause” is to be discovered, it may be the final phase of a childhood from hell.

Much of Dr Myss’ subsequent work deals with healing childhood traumas. At WholeHealth Chicago, our Healing Touch practitioner Katie Oberlin has a series of treatments called Trauma Release. She teaches these release techniques at several locations around the city. Our staff mental health therapists, Jennifer Davis, Christine Savas, and Janet Chandler, PhD, have long clinical experience treating patients with early life traumas. And each of our functional medicine practitioners–Caley Scott, ND, Wendy Ploegstra, APN, Alaina Gemelas, DC, Katie McManigal, APN, Neeti Sharma, MD, Cliff Maurer, DC, and myself–begins new patient conversations with some variation of “So tell me about your life…starting from the beginning.”

That the body/mind would keep score makes sense. I’ve heard variations of the following from many survivors of childhood trauma: It took a long time to come to terms with what happened, if not forgiving then a lot of letting go.

But once you release the toxins of the past, your body can heave a sigh of relief and, if it could talk, say something like, “Okay, now, let’s get on the path toward a healthy, happy, and fulfilled human being.”

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. Deborah says:

    An important post, Dr. E. Our bodies and minds, and I would add our soul or spirit, are inextricably linked. I’m curious what you think about the work of Dr. John Sarno?

    • cliffmaurer says:

      Hi Deborah – A lot of us have heard of Dr. Sarno and his important work. The mind-body connection is so important in considering one’s overall health, isn’t it?

      -Dr M

  2. Tina Hepworth says:

    Thanks for bringing these two great books to people’s attention, Dr.E. Have bought and read them both a while back-really interesting and helpful.It can take decades before realizing that what went on as a child is still affecting you now, and grieving for the lost time and opportunities in your life b/c of what happened as a child, and letting go, is really hard!

  3. Sharon Figueroa says:

    Every child on this planet when born, should be given one year of psychotherapy free, to be used when needed. A loving thing to do, I think. Thank you Dr. E. For your compassionate attention to this very important area on living fully.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, delicious and time-saving recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

BIRTHDAY

Health Tips

Dr. Edelberg’s Health Tips contain concise bits of advice, medical news, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical updates, and stress relief ideas. With every Health Tip, you’ll also receive an easy, delicious, and healthful recipe.

When you sign up to receive Health Tips, you can look forward to Dr. Edelberg’s smart and very current observations arriving in your in-box weekly. They’re packed with helpful information and are often slightly irreverent. One of the most common responses to the tips is “I wish my doctor talked to me like this!”

Quick Connect

Get One Click Access to our

patient-portal

The Knowledge Base

Patient education is an integral part of our practice. Here you will find a comprehensive collection of staff articles, descriptions of therapies and nutritional supplements, information addressing your health concerns, and the latest research on nutritional supplements and alternative therapies.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

Upcoming Workshops

**Adrenal Boost!
Wednesday, December 4, 6-8pm
With Caley Scott, ND, and Renee Zambo, C-IAYT Yoga Therapist

Course Fee: $75.00

Feeling Tired? Need help improving fatigue? Learn to boost energy with WholeHealth Chicago’s Naturopath Caley Scott and Yoga Therapist Renee Zambo. More →

**Facial Guasha Class
Thursday, December 5, 6-7:30pm
Hosted by Mari Stecker, LAc

Course Fee: $75.00
(includes take-home facial guasha tool and custom anti-aging facial oil!)

Join us and learn a traditional Chinese facial rejuvenation technique that you can do yourself! Guasha treatment is a 2,000 year old Chinese massage technique that uses a flat tool to apply pressure to the skin to increase circulation as it moves along acupuncture channels. More →

Recent Health Tips

  • NAD+: Finally Getting Serious About Anti-Aging Therapy

    We’re living in a time of major, worldwide breakthroughs when it comes to understanding how we age and also the steps we can take to not only slow down aging, but to all appearances reverse the process. Over history, the fountain of youth seekers came, literally and figuratively, to dead ends, but back then Ponce de Leon had no internet in Florida. I do and Read More

  • The Cleveland Clinic and WholeHealth Chicago

    I know, I know. It’s presumptuous of me to mention Cleveland Clinic in  the same line, much less on the same page, as WholeHealth Chicago, though we do have significant attributes in common, as you’ll see today. This research article, which appeared last week on the JAMA website, links the two of us in ways we never expected, though it didn’t surprise us. Naturally, we Read More

  • Diagnostic Tests Chart Path To A Healthful Longevity

    Let me start with a piece of disappointing news. You know that battery of blood tests ordered by your family doctor or internist during your dutiful check-up? That complete blood count (CBC), comprehensive metabolic profile (CMP), and so forth? All of them are pretty useless. Yes, they’re almost always covered by insurance, so they’re free, being part of the annual wellness exam your insurance company Read More

Support your brain, heart and immune system health this month with 20% off BodyBio Balance Oil

Omega 6s and Omega 3s are the most powerful nutrients we can give our bodies. BodyBio Balance Oil is formulated with a ratio of four (4) parts omega 6 to one (1) part omega 3. Taken in this ratio, these nutrients positively impact brain function, digestive health, immune support, liver function and cardiovascular activity.

Click here to take advantage of this month’s promotion!