We’ve known for a long while that unresolved emotional trauma can cause lifelong behavioural problems. Most notably, Dr. Gabor Maté has explained how addictions arise in people who’ve suffered wounds in the past, mostly during their childhood years, and how those wounds continue to manifest in negative ways throughout their lives.
While this is not something that can easily be pinned down by medical research, it does make sense intuitively, and the improvements people see in their lives once traumatic experiences are reconciled and put to rest offers sufficient testimony to support this idea.
Regarding physical illness however, we’ve always presumed a strictly material causality, something which can be singled out and directly linked to the illness, like a germ or a deficiency. However, this view is being challenged by studies which suggest that emotional trauma can also cause the manifestation of physical illness.
What is Trauma?
Firstly, what is trauma? Many people associate major events with what we call trauma, things like sexual or physical abuse, seeing combat, and those sorts of things, but in reality, it is most often much more subtle than this, with seemingly less significant events having a lasting impression.
Psychologist Dawson Church, PhD offers a more thorough definition of a traumatising event, outlining four key components:
• It is perceived as a threat to the person’s physical survival
• It overwhelms their coping capacity, producing a sense of powerlessness
• It produces a feeling of isolation and aloneness
• It violates their expectations
In this light, any number of ordinary childhood experiences could be considered traumatising, and in Church’s book, Psychological Trauma: Healing Its Roots in Brain, Body and Memory, he relates the story of a patient who experiences an event such as this:
When I was growing up, I idolised my older brother Gary. But he was pretty rough with me. He was six years older than I was. One day when I was three and he was nine, he wanted to have a wrestling match. He ‘won’ by lying on top of me. I couldn’t breathe and I began to panic. Gary just laughed when he saw me struggling and I almost passed out. When he rolled off me, I began to cry uncontrollably. My mother came in, and I tried to explain what happened. He told her it was nothing. I was just being a cry-baby. Mom told me, “Big girls don’t cry.”
Lissa Rankin, MD explains how a link is formed between this type of trauma and the manifestation of physical illness later on in life, explaining that emotional changes are the precursors to physical changes.
“This is not to suggest ‘it’s all in your head.’ It’s absolutely in your body! It’s simply that the physiological changes that occur in the body as the result of unhealed trauma and its associated stress, anxiety, and depression translates into conditions in the body that make you susceptible to physical ailments.”
In her book, Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, Rankin dives more deeply into this issue, noting a study which backs up the connection between trauma and certain illnesses.
“In a landmark 1990 study of 17,421 patients, Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) collaborated on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE), which has resulted in over 50 peer-reviewed scientific articles. Patients were interviewed to determine whether they had experienced any of ten traumatising events in childhood including:
• Physical abuse
• Sexual abuse
• Emotional abuse
• Physical neglect
• Emotional neglect
• Mother treated violently
• Household substance abuse
• Household mental illness
• Parental separation or divorce
• Incarcerated household member
The study revealed that traumatising childhood events are commonplace. Two-thirds of individuals reported at least one traumatising childhood event. 40% of the patients reported two or more traumatising childhood events, and 12.5% reported four or more. These results were then correlated with the physical health of the interviewed patients, and researchers discovered a dose-response. Traumatising events in childhood were linked to adult disease in all categories — cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, bone fractures, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, depression, smoking, and suicide. The average age of patients in this study was 57 years old, which means that childhood trauma can have a delayed effect on the body, making it entirely possible that something that happened 50 years ago may be predisposing someone to illness in the here and now. The more Adverse Childhood Events an individual reported, the sicker and more resistant to treatment they were.”
We are in the midst of a swarm of health crises, and a holistic approach to our health would look for the interconnectedness among these major issues. The obesity epidemic, rising cancer rates, skyrocketing diabetes, rising depression and even the opioid epidemic, are all somehow related to how the mind and body work together to create the complete being.
In this paradigm it servers us well to consider a link to the emotional wellness of people, looking to create the right conditions for people to want to take good care of themselves and their bodies.