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.
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 new 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. Both our staff psychologists, Meghan Roekle, PhD, and Janet Chandler, PhD, have long clinical experience treating patients with early life traumas. And each of our physicians–Casey Kelley, MD, Kristin Donigan, DO, 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.”
David Edelberg, MD