How Trauma Causes Disease

Did you know that trauma, heightened emotional events, and unprocessed emotions can make you sick and even get in the way of you being able to heal from any illness or disease? Trauma results from an undesired physical response, belief, thought, or emotion in the mind/body when you perceive an event as dangerous, frightening, harmful, or life-threatening in any way. The trauma literally gets stuck in your cells, tissues, and organs causing dysfunction and ultimately disease and illness.

Trauma isn’t the event itself, but rather our interpretation or perception of the event and the story we create around it.  Our interpretation or perception of the event that we believed to be dangerous, frightening, harmful, or life threatening causes changes in our brain and body neurology and our biology that is dysfunctional and sometimes even painful.  The subsequent dysfunction of our biological and neurological systems is what happens as a result of trauma.  

It is well established across all medical disciplines—whether traditional medical or holistic—that trauma increases the risk of severe health conditions and disease in children and adults.

Keep reading so you can learn how trauma impacts the brain, the body, and our DNA,  and how trauma can cause disease and prevent healing.

The Mind-Body Connection

For far too long, traditional medicine has treated the mind and body as separate entities. But nothing could be further from the truth (seems pretty obvious, right?). You see, your body responds to the way you think and feel. For example, if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or upset, your body will react with high blood pressure, increased heart rate, or perhaps an ulcer. Even just thinking about an experience might “trigger” a physical response, like a panic attack or nausea.

This is your body’s response to your mind communicating that something isn’t right.

The body communicates with the mind, too, like when it reacts to a chemical toxin in the environment or feels pain. Interestingly, it’s been proven that we can reduce the intensity of physical pain (body) when we can fully express our emotions (instead of controlling them in our mind). More on healing the mind to heal the body later!

The Link Between Early Trauma and Disease

The landmark ACE Study is the most well-known for connecting childhood trauma with disease and riskier behavior in adulthood. The study, conducted between 1995 and 1997, involved giving over 17,000 adult participants a questionnaire about their adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These ACEs (childhood trauma-inducing events) included experiencing/ witnessing abuse, violence, substance abuse in the home, mental illness of a family member, losing a parent to divorce, abandonment, or death, feeling like no one in your family loved you, feeling like you had no one to protect you, and other heightened emotional experiences. (Get your ACE score here.)

The number of “yes” answers to these questions were then compared to the measurement of adult risk behaviors, health status, and disease. They found a clear relationship between the number of ACEs, health risk behaviors, and disease.

The more ACEs a child had, the more likely they would suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, smoking, poor self-rated health, STDs, increase in physical inactivity, and obesity in adulthood. There was also a graded relationship between ACEs and ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease.

The study concluded a strong relationship between the number of adverse childhood experiences and multiple risk factors for the leading causes of death in adults. But adverse childhood experiences aren’t the only way to experience trauma. Learn the causes of trauma here.

Your Brain and Trauma

Now that we’ve established that the brain and body are inextricably linked, let’s do a quick overview of what trauma does to the brain. From there, we can see the cascading effects of that on the body and, in time, how it can cause disease.

This section will discuss two parts of the brain, the amygdala, and the frontal lobe.

The amygdala is the “primitive brain;” where “fight or flight,” survival, emotions, fear, and anxiety live. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain where reasoning, inhibition of behavior, emotional expression, personality, judgment, self-monitoring, awareness, and mental flexibility occur.

Trauma and ACEs cause what we call an “Amygdala Hijack,” where the amygdala gets activated and stifles activity in the frontal lobe, which is the reasoning center of the brain.

Your amygdala then sends messages to your body saying that you are not okay, which activates your stress response, turns on your stress hormones (like cortisol), increases your heart rate and causes a cascade of numerous other biological changes inside the body and brain. And when the challenging emotions associated with trauma aren’t healthily expressed or resolved, they’ve got nowhere to go but deeper in the body’s tissues and organs, causing a host of issues along the way.

Your Body and Trauma

So, your thoughts, emotions, and beliefs directly impact your biology and your nervous system due to the bodily response they induce. This is a beneficial and necessary reaction for survival and protection—in the temporary and rare times we truly need it.

The problems arise when trauma causes this reaction (which is meant to be temporary) to occur over time, or with repetition, stressing the body and causing dysfunction, symptoms, and disease.

Sometimes, this happens over so long that trauma, no longer conscious to the mind, is still experienced by the body. Because the trauma literally gets stuck in the body, it impacts:

  • Brain chemistry
  • Neural pathways
  • Immune function
  • Cellular function
  • Hormone and Metabolic Systems
  • Organ function
  • DNA Expression and Replication

Trauma and Disease

The connection between trauma, the body, and the mind is clear. But how do the above impacts on the body and mind turn into actual disease or chronic illness?

We’ve learned that the body reacts to the mind with physiological changes that include the nervous system, heart, and blood flow. (It can affect muscles, the gastrointestinal system, organ function, brain function, and even the genito-urinary system, too!)

As the stress of trauma continues to cycle through the body, it’s not uncommon for people to search for ways outside themselves to cope and attempt to regulate their nervous system. Unfortunately, this can lead to addictive, unsafe, or risky behaviors that cause diseases like addiction, diabetes, obesity,mental health disorders, organ failure, and chronic pain. In addition, the chronic inflammatory response of the nervous system due to trauma can also cause autoimmune disease, heart attack, stroke, or cancer. (For a longer list of trauma symptoms, click here.)

Trauma (and the resulting physical response, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs), as well as environmental factors (food, chemicals, air), even change your DNA, the sequences of molecules that act as the code for your body’s hardware. These codes run the “systemic engines” of the body, including your organs, cells, tissues—so it only makes sense that disease will occur when these systems don’t function properly.

The impact of trauma on your DNA makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint as these genetic imprints are meant to prepare your offspring for the world in which you live.

Your trauma, then can be coded in the structure of your child’s DNA and nervous system. In the case of generational trauma, this means that trauma coded from past generations could still be impacting you today, and your unresolved trauma could impact future generations if left unresolved. This trauma can show up in many forms of disease, including colon cancer, heart disease, and mental health issues.

Healing Trauma and Trauma-Related Disease

Your body and mind are connected, and your thoughts, emotions, beliefs directly impact your ultimate health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, trauma can make it hard to sustain a positive, empowered mind and work against even the best physical health and healing protocols. Fortunately, precisely because they are connected, you can make positive changes in the mind that directly and positively impact the body.

The brain is extremely plastic and the body is incredibly resilient.

Just as you may have been wired by trauma, so can you rewire the brain and body for healing and health. By taking a systematic approach to physical health and trading beliefs, thoughts, and emotions stemming from trauma with new, positive, empowering, and congruent ones that align with what you desire, you can take a root-cause approach to healing your trauma, no matter how deep.

If you’d like support in analyzing your symptoms and designing a custom health and recovery program based on your unique trauma, genetic makeup, chemistry, and lifestyle, reach out!

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