Connection Between Trauma and Autoimmunity: The Story Your Doc Never Tells You
With April around the corner, I’ve begun my yearly ritual of Spring cleaning; attacking dark corners with my best sponge, donating unworn clothing, freshening up the house with new decor, reigniting my life vision.
As I dug through old stuff this past week, other heavy, long-forgotten baggage surfaced. Hints of emotions I had spent years integrating and neatly packing away swelled up in my heart. Such is trauma. Just as life begins to move on, dust and damage from the past pour into the present, demanding to be revived.
I honor the past, let it breathe, and then move on. No need to cling to this achingly familiar pain as it settled into my chest, morphing into deep longing, betrayal, and grief. The mother wound. Abused by the one person who was meant to love me unconditionally and care for me no matter what. The woman I thought was my mother who turned out to be a lie. Feeling into the deep soul ache, my body shook with sobs until the trauma passed.
And as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone, making room for fresh, vibrant feelings.
Having the emotional capacity to process old trauma today is a luxury. I used to be consumed by suffering and illness. For the first twenty-five years of my life, I lived in a hell called Behcet’s Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease of the vascular system. Every month my body would succumb to a high fever, arthritic joints, and full-body inflammation that caused debilitating symptoms.
For years, I was subject to the gauntlet of Western Medicine. Misdiagnosed for two decades, I became a medical experiment: hospitalizations, massive doses of steroids, unnecessary and risky medical procedures, and life-threatening medications.
By my early twenties, my body, mind, and soul were a tortured mess. In a moment of deep depression and despair, I reached for help outside the allopathic medicine system.
That one decision changed the course of my life. Working with a somatic therapist and bodyworker, I healed by getting to the root of the disease: inflammation, stress, and trauma trapped in my body. Over the course of two years, my disease went into remission.
What happened to me felt like a miracle but was far from it. Psychologists, neurobiologists, and other researchers have begun to link trauma and later outcomes, such as mental illness, chronic pain, chronic illness, and, more specifically, autoimmune diseases.
During a perceived life-threatening event, aspects of the trauma become embedded in the nervous system, sending the body into fight-flight-freeze. In the midst of trauma, stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol surge. When the body is chronically overwhelmed with adrenaline and cortisol due to constantly being in fight-flight-or-freeze (chronic trauma, stress, abuse), the immune system kicks into overload and chronic illness, particularly autoimmune dysfunction, takes hold. If a person is exposed to trauma regularly, their system cannot sustain fight-flight-or-freeze mode and shuts down. Some have theorized this complete shutdown creates the conditions for syndromes like fibromyalgia/CFS to arise.
While I have personally encountered hundreds of chronically ill folk who survived childhood trauma, that’s a mere drop in the bucket. What’s truly telling is the research.
Some of the earliest research began in the 1970s with neuroscientist Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, showing how trauma gets stuck in the body. The ACE’s Study in the 1990s demonstrates a connection between childhood trauma land negative outcomes later in life. The more risk factors for trauma, the more negative outcomes you are likely to suffer, such as depression, anxiety, addiction, chronic illness (or multiple illnesses), and so on.
Autoimmune disease, in particular, is linked to childhood trauma. A retrospective cohort study of over 15,000 participants in the ACE’s Study between 1995 and 2005 showed that childhood traumatic stress increased the likelihood of hospitalization due to an autoimmune disease into adulthood. Research conducted in Sweden supports a similar conclusion; exposure to a stress-related disorder (like PTSD) and trauma increases the risk of autoimmune disease.
You might be reading this at home, bed-ridden, grappling with five different autoimmune diseases along with the depression and hopelessness that goes along with that. Perhaps you’re riddled with anxiety. Maybe you’re someone who suffers from chronic migraines or allergies.
My guess is that you, like 99% of people, do not identify with having lived through trauma. Even the most egregiously abused children cast their childhoods and their abuse in rose-colored glasses (a perfect example is Dylan’s description of her abuse at the end of “Allen vs. Farrow”).
What does matter is how your nervous system has recorded traumatic events throughout your life. Those memories and emotions are stored in your body and subconscious, integrated into your self-identity.
Autoimmune disease is a dysfunction of the body, a combination of factors. If you have unprocessed trauma in your body, it likely turned on genes responsible for expressing your condition(s). When you heal trauma and stress, you can quiet those genes, bring your cortisol levels and adrenaline back to normal, and help your mind and body rest.
Trauma and illness do not have to be your destiny or destination. They can be a portal for transformation, the key to awakening to your authentic self so you can live life to its fullest.