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March 13 2023 Vennessa McConkey

How Trauma Leads to Dis-Ease in Your Body

You are probably already thinking - I haven't experienced serious trauma. My life has been pretty good!

Well, let me tell you. Your physical symptoms may be showing you that your body keeps score. This is something I don't take lightly as a holistic wellness practitioner. For years, I believed all the conventional and functional practitioners, the specialists and even the naturopaths - that I had autoimmune diseases and they were genetic. 

The more I dove into how the body and it's systems work and integrate with our minds, I found out all those professionals were wrong. 

Strong statement, I know. But keep reading. 

Unrecognized and unresolved trauma can take a significant toll on your physical health. I know there are many different types of trauma, but for the purpose of this article, I want to focus on childhood trauma (which can be emotional, physical, sexual, verbal or any combination). Unresolved or unrecognized childhood trauma is particularly insidious because effects are both gradual and cumulative. Scary, right?

Many of you have lived this and may not even know unless you start diving deep and asking yourself why you behave certain ways, why you have specific symptoms and why you can get rid of those symptoms or diagnosed diseases. 

Having an understanding of how your body responds to stress and trauma can empower you to work along side practitioners who truly care about you and actively attend to your physical and emotional needs. 

Let's dive in to the relationship between your health and STRESS (one of the pillars I work intimately on with clients), and some of the most interesting research about this topic that, in my opinion, revolves around the connection between childhood trauma and the inflammatory response, specifically the autoimmune response.

When we are under any stress, our beautiful nervous system initiates what we all know of as "fight or flight" response, attempting to establish safety for ourselves. Per the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, there are three forms of childhood stress:

1. Positive Stress - one that temporarily resolves itself with a positive connection to loving caregivers. This is what most of one's childhood should entail - new babysitter, brief separation from their caregivers. This healthy positive stress actually preps the nervous system to cope with stressful situations we encounter as adults. 

2. Tolerable Stress - one maybe two significant "single-incident-trauma" as a child, such as a death or home fire or car accident. If you have a set of loving caregivers, they will be able to help you as a child process those traumatic events, which in turn help you cope in adulthood. 

3. Toxic Stress - profound traumatic events occur over and over and over, without support from loving adults. This stress response is highly associated with negative outcomes on emotional and physical health in adulthood. 

Now, ideally, stress should be temporary. But when stressful situations persist, it results in our bodies remaining in a high state of alert without the capability of rest. Traumatic stress actually immobilizes you without a way to escape. You feel trapped and your fight/flight response is unsuccessful and as a child, you were left feeling hopeless. 

Going deeper into more of the medical aspect, during stressful events, the body produces cortisol, which is associated with the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight). When stress is ongoing, the body continues to produce high amounts of cortisol. 

Now stay with me here....because many people are misdiagnosed with diseases because they don't know the person's full story.

In contrast to high cortisol levels, unresolved complex PTSD (ongoing trauma), is actually associated with LOW levels of cortisol. This does NOT mean that the body is unable to produce cortisol; in fact, it actually continues to produce high levels of cortisol. Wait for it....

However, the physiology of that unresolved PTSD is associated with the oscillation of feeling overwhelmed and shitting down - like driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes. It's exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. 

In regards to the nervous system, we have two branches: the sympathetic (fight/flight responses) and parasympathetic (rest/digest). They are meant to work like a symphony - alternating various instruments - supporting healthy digestion, immune function, and sleep. But here's where those with childhood CPTSD struggle - the chronic stress and unrecognized/unresolved trauma interferes with the balance between the systems and NEGATIVELY impacts physical health. 

It's an inverse relationship. High cortisol equals a suppressed immune system. Low cortisol equals optimal immune system - typically. Our immune system is associated with inflammation. We need inflammation when we are fighting off viruses or bacterias or other pathogens. But when the immune system continues to fire without a target, there is a very strong likelihood of long-term health issues, like autoimmune disease. 

There was actually a study done in the late 90s that people who were treated poorly as children showed high levels of systemic inflammation as adults, up to 20 years later. People with stressful childhoods were more likely to have high levels of inflammation as adults, regardless of whether they experienced a large or small amount of stress during adulthood.

I wanted to list out some of the health issues associated with chronic stress and CPTSD (perhaps you can identify with one or more):

- High blood pressure
- Blood sugar imbalances (leads to diabetes)
- Food cravings (lead to emotional eating)
- Addictions (drugs, caffeine, OTCs, alcohol)
- Slow digestion (digestion is a non-essential when we need to flee or fight a predator, so it shuts down when the body is stressed)
- Sleep disturbances (normal circadian wakes us in the morning and falls throughout the day through the middle of the night. With CPTSD, there is an abnormally flattened cortisol cycle that is linked to fatigue and insomnia)
- Autoimmune disorders (when there is no virus or bacteria to fight, unchecked immune system targets healthy tissue)

So as you can see, many people who have had serious trauma, especially since childhood, and even more specifically if emotional or verbal abusive trauma, they have more serious health issues. And these health issues are usually misdiagnosed as IBD, IBS, Crohns, GI disorders, adrenal and thyroid autoimmune diseases because practitioners won't take time to dive deep into their past and lifestyle in all areas. 

There's a ton of science to back this up both in the medical and psychological arenas.

The point is: if you don't feel right and your doctor is telling you you have X disease, or it's in your head, or prescribes you supplements or medication, or your labs are normal without diving into your childhood and daily life - STOP. Find someone else.  

Find someone who has worked through issues themselves and has helped others do the same. Find someone who cares enough to sacrifice lots of time with you to help you get to the root cause. Because none of us were born with these feelings or symptoms. SOMETHING happened.

Xoxo ,


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