Trauma creates a disturbance in all areas of the self: mind, body, and spirit. Traumatic experience alters our ability to feel comfortable in our bodies as well as in society. Healing from trauma then requires the synchronicity of all of these aspects and can have long-lasting effects for all of our bodily systems. While the brain is undoubtedly affected by trauma, the nervous system is particularly implicated in traumatic experience. Our nervous system is incredible and is very similar in humans and animals. Its primary function is to keep us alive. Whether that be through the ongoing task of keeping our organs and bodily functions operating throughout the day without our conscious thought, or mobilizing fight, flight, or freeze in response to threat. However, being in a constant state of hyper or hypo arousal has a long term impact on our biology. Our nervous system hasn’t changed much since we have been on this planet. Likewise, in modern society, we are not trying to evade predators or facing many other daily threats our ancestors did. However, our nervous system still functions essentially the same way, responding to everyday stressors as if they were life-threatening situations. This overactivation creates chronic stress that continues to live in our bodies and contributes to disease.
Chronic stress and health
A landmark study done in the late 90’s called the Adverse Childhood Experience study had 17,000 participants fill out surveys about their childhood experiences and followed them over two years collecting data about how childhood stress, abuse, and neglect affected the long term health and wellbeing of participants. The results were astounding. The questionnaire had ten markers including emotional, psychological, and physical abuse and things like the death of a primary caregiver and violence and/or crime in the home. For each experience, the participant was given a score from 0-10 based on how many situations they had been exposed to; the study found that as a person’s ACE score increased, their health and lifestyle risks also increased. For every 1 point increase in ACE score, the risk of developing autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 Diabetes, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and some 80 other conditions goes up by 20%.
As evidenced by this study and many others like it, trauma and chronic stress, at any age in life have substantial and long term effects on our health due to the system being in a chronic state of high alert. When our bodies are in this state, we overproduce cortisol, underproduce key happiness neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, and our adrenals become exhausted. These chemical and hormonal processes create a cascade within our systems that prevent nearly all systems from functioning optimally.
There is hope
While the statistics above may seem scary and intimidating, some factors and approaches can help people struggling with trauma as well as ongoing health issues. Many people who face issues with invisible illnesses and autoimmune conditions are often not believed or have to cycle through many different doctors and providers to find answers. This process in and of itself can be traumatic and erode the energy and confidence that they have left. However, more and more research is being done to make these vital connections between mind and body to provide a new level of care to people who are suffering.
An integrated approach can help
Body-based psychotherapies such as Somatic Experiencing can help people get unstuck from the chronic stress and trauma that lives in their bodies. Through the completion of incomplete self-protective responses and by discharging stored energy and tension in the system, we can invite the system to come back into flow and resiliency. Additionally, clients can practice breathwork and meditation at home that focuses on increasing vagal tone, to help regulate the nervous system and create a greater capacity for tolerating stressful and triggering situations.
Conversely, during trauma treatment, it is also helpful to incorporate supportive nutrition and lifestyle modifications. 80-90% of serotonin is produced in the gut rather than the brain, so the health of our gut microbiome is crucial for optimal mental health. Incorporating fermented foods, high-quality probiotics, and plenty of prebiotic foods will help support the repopulation of good gut bacteria. Stabilizing blood sugar levels also increase mood stability. The body perceives swings in blood sugar (high or low) as stress to the body. When the body has to work twice as hard to stabilize blood sugar through the release of insulin and other hormones responsible for modulating blood sugar, the body cannot focus on healing our systems that have been disrupted by trauma.
Make it work for you
There are also many other resiliency factors in a client’s life that can be protective and helpful in the recovery process, including family and social support, community involvement, creativity, spirituality, and many more. Living with traumatic symptoms, chronic health issues, and other mental health concerns is exceptionally taxing. The above are simply suggestions for some things that can support your healing and recovery. It is best to incorporate elements as you feel ready. Only you know what pace and approaches are best for you. Each piece of the puzzle is a process of integration and fosters reconnection with yourself and your experience.