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Trauma, chronic Illness, and why it's not 'all in your head’.

In our journey toward healing, it's essential to challenge outdated perspectives on trauma. The conventional understanding often suggests that trauma resides solely in the mind. However, this limited view neglects the profound impact trauma can have on the entire body.


Rather than being solely a cognitive experience, trauma is deeply rooted in our somatic, or bodily, responses. This means that trauma isn't just "in your head" – it manifests in physical sensations, emotions, and even disruptions in our nervous system.


The understanding that trauma and adverse life events can lead to psychological symptoms like PTSD, anxiety, and nightmares is widely accepted and supported by research.


However, it's crucial to recognise that psychological symptoms are not the sole effects of trauma. The outdated notion that chronic illnesses are purely psychological, implying laziness or attention-seeking, is both inaccurate and harmful.


This misconception persists, whether the chronic illness has clear diagnostic tests like type 1 diabetes or relies on subjective symptom reporting like chronic fatigue or irritable bowel syndrome. The distinction between "functional" diseases without visible abnormalities and those with objective findings lies not in the reality of the illness but in the timing of exposure to early trauma.


Additionally, autoimmune conditions disproportionately affect women, all of whom on some levels have been subjected to patriarchal abuse and a lineage of trauma. In cultures where women traditionally face scepticism and dismissal of their symptoms, these conditions are often misunderstood or overlooked. Women are frequently told they are "making it up" or being "hysterical," perpetuating a cycle of invalidation and suffering.


These outdated beliefs, rooted in judgment and shame, have led many individuals with debilitating chronic illnesses to question the validity of their symptoms. It's time to discard these harmful perspectives.


Recent scientific advancements offer a new understanding of chronic diseases, their risk factors, and potential interventions. Yet, despite this progress, stories persist of individuals being doubted, shunned, or blamed for their illnesses, even when their symptoms are recognisable or lack objective measures.


These experiences are heart-wrenching and evoke feelings of anger and fear. Many, have avoided seeking medical help due to these fears.


We now know that trauma is linked to a freeze response (aka the trauma response), akin to slamming on the brakes in the face of danger. This psychological mechanism is a complex interplay between our mind and body, where the instinct to freeze manifests as a means of self-preservation. While this response may serve its purpose in the moment of a traumatic event, its lingering effects can be profound and far-reaching.


In the aftermath of trauma, particularly when the freeze response dominates, a cascade of physiological and psychological processes unfolds. The body's stress response system becomes dysregulated, leading to chronic activation of stress hormones such as cortisol. This prolonged state of heightened arousal can disrupt various bodily functions, contributing to the risk and development of chronic illness.


Moreover, the freeze response often involves a disconnection from bodily sensations and emotions, creating a sense of dissociation from one's own physical experience. This disconnect can hinder the body's ability to heal and regulate itself effectively, further exacerbating the risk of chronic illness.


The link between the freeze response and chronic symptoms is multifaceted and complex. The impact of trauma can manifest as somatic symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, and gastrointestinal distress.


Recognising the connection between trauma, the freeze response, and chronic illness is crucial for healing. By addressing the underlying trauma and its effects on both mind and body, individuals can work towards restoring balance and resilience. Integrative approaches that combine psychotherapy, somatic therapies, and lifestyle interventions can offer avenues for healing that honour the interconnectedness of our psychological and physiological well-being.


Understanding trauma as a holistic experience allows us to appreciate its complexity fully. By acknowledging its somatic aspects, we can adopt more comprehensive approaches to healing. This might involve practices such as somatic therapy, which recognises the interconnectedness of mind and body in the healing process.


Embracing this broader perspective empowers individuals to explore diverse avenues of healing, recognising that trauma is not confined to the realm of thought but encompasses the entirety of our being. It's a shift that invites us to honour the wisdom of our bodies and embark on a journey of holistic healing.


“Trauma is a fact of life but it does not have to be a life sentence” Peter Levine.



 

 

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