Trauma Ruins Your Body Just As Much As It Ruins Your Mind
I wanted to write a post about perfectionism and imposter syndrome (which I periodically struggle with) but decided to write about a topic that has been spooking in my mind for quite some time, instead. The topic is how trauma and physical health issues later in life actually very much co-relate. It is one of those rude things. You suffered through hell during your childhood, or you have gone to war, or someone abused you for years. You get out of the traumatic situation, and then realize. Nope, your torture is not over. Your have now mental health issues and if you are really unlucky, you have treatment-resistant PTSD, CPTSD or a dissociative illness. But not only that! If you have been through childhood trauma and you have had an accumulation of adverse events during your childhood, your life expectancy is cut down by up to 20 years!
The ACES Study – How Trauma Ruins Your Body
Yes, you read it right. 20 years. Your life will be shorter, you will have more physical illnesses than the general population, and the mental torment will not leave you alone either. One could say that this is incredibly unfair. And yes, I say that quite a lot. Actually, I even blame myself for my physical health issues. But let me get to all that in a second, my own experiences. You know, there is no such thing as fairness in the universe. Most things are actually simple chains of cause and effect.
First off, I want to first make clear that this is not a post founded on my own guess-work. There are numerous studies that suggest that mental illness and physical illness often go hand in hand. Things like bipolar disorder and diabetes, schizophrenia and cardiovascular disease, depression and a low immune system, all those are often related. It is sad, really, that those who struggle with one thing, often are prone to suffer from something more as well.
Let me give you a great example of a study that has proven the co-relation between trauma during childhood and a lower mortality rate. The ACES (adverse childhood experience study) is built upon a questionnaire with 10 questions. Answering 4 or more of these questions with a yes means that you have been through trauma so severe during your childhood, that it will affect your mortality rate significantly.
As your ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social and emotional problems. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; attempted suicide, 1,220 percent.Source
So yes, shit gets real. You can lose 20 years of your life because someone has hurt you in the past. But why is that? In general, it is about stress and how you handle the stress. Being under constant threat, feeling helpless, having anxiety, being hypervigilant, gives your body a constant flow of stress hormones. That is what gives people with trauma issues a much higher risk for autoimmune illnesses. Overeating, undereating, sleep issues, avoiding to go out, being scared of doctors. All this leads to a huge risk to develop chronic illnesses. And unsurprisingly, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia have long been linked to trauma during childhood.
This is the science. Those are the facts and the statistics. But you know, things become often clearer when you see a proper example. So let me share some stuff with you.
My Body – Inabilities of Care
I want to talk about myself, but I want to first make sure that although I am speaking from personal experiences, I have seen the kinds of behaviour I am unfortunately engaging in, and the consequences of trauma during childhood, also in others. I have seen it in friends, and in people I have supported in my volunteer work. There is the girl with Dissociative Identity Disorder that died of cervical cancer because she was too scared to go to a gynecologist. There is the woman with severe heart issues because she is unable to take care of her basic human needs: eating, drinking and sleeping. There is the guy with such severe chronic pain whose father had raped him for years, and who can’t leave his bed now. The list can go on and on. But I don’t want to share other people’s stories. That is up to them!
My ACES score is 9. I have several physical illnesses and ailments and I link them all to my trauma. I have Hashimoto’s, which is an autoimmune illness. It often runs in families, but when it doesn’t, it is suggested that it is caused by the stress from trauma. No one in my family suffers or has suffered from thyroid illness. I have diabetes. Now, that runs in my family, but I am the first to get it under the age of 50 (I am 37). I am overweight due to PCOS, the Hashimoto’s and psych medication’s side-effects. Oh yes, let’s talk about those! Psychiatric medication is not safe. It can cause severe physical conditions (like diabetes, kidney disease, neurological damage). I managed to get a chronic sinus condition and chronic neurological issues due to psychiatric medication. The diabetes, the Hashimoto’s, the neurological issues are all directly or indirectly linked to my trauma. So are my chronic headaches, my fatigue and the huge array of mental health issues I need to handle every day.
But you know what? That is not even that. None of the things I am diagnosed with is lethal. I mean, yes, they slowly tear down the body and they take years from my life. But that is not what I think the major issue is for me, or others, who have been through trauma. The major issue is our absolute inability to take care of ourselves. I think this is deeply rooted in several things.
We are not aware of that we are worth it. We have never learnt what it is like to have someone care. We might actually go to the extreme where we deny ourselves sleep, food, water. As a way to punish ourselves, or hurt ourselves. Sleep can be a scary thing anyway, and so are medications. You want to be in control, you need to be in control, because of the anxiety you experience. And when you are on medication, you feel like you are not in control anymore. And then there is the fear of doctors which so very widespread among those with trauma issues. Most physical symptoms are often waved off as “being in your head” when the doctor is aware of your mental illness. If you are a woman, and overweight, forget being treated in a professional manner. And then there is of course the touching. Being touched is a huge trigger for many survivors of trauma.
Food, Exercise, Consistency and Sleep
Well, let me tell you how it is for me! Sometimes, I need to be forced to eat and drink. There is something inside me that just stops me from making sure that my basic human needs are met. I can’t even explain what it is. It is a mixture of not understanding why I need to eat because I don’t understand why I would deserve it (my food was restricted a lot when I was a kid). It is also about that I want to not eat because food is poison (I have diabetes and I am scared of food a lot), or that I want to punish myself for being a bad person. And in bipolar depression, there is also the huge lack of appetite that complicates things even more.
Exercise is supposed to be good for you, right? Even exercise is extremely complicated for me. I have always been bullied for being overweight and exercising in front of others is a no-go for me. My social anxiety would never let me go to a gym or a pool or even go for a run, if there was a chance of anyone seeing me. It is not only that. The neurological issues that I have mentioned earlier make exercise quite impossible for me, I get spasms and twitch in my limbs when I exercise, and the consequences of it I can feel for days. Add to that the fatigue and queaziness of the thyroid issues and the diabetes. Exercise like others do, is not on the table for me. And I know that others with trauma issues struggle with this similarly. Anything physical can be a trigger.
To take care of yourself, the basics, needs consistency. You need to do it every day, for it to have an effect on your body. I want to see someone with severe trauma issues to be able to be consistent. There is just no way. There are days when you have so many flashbacks, you just want to die. In depression, you can’t get out of bed. If you are triggered, you deny yourself the things you need. There is no way. It even affects the way you take medication. It can be a struggle to even ask anyone for a prescription, let alone take the medication regularly. And the kind of medication that I’d need, like sedatives or sleepingpills, are often only restrictively prescribed.
Sleep is absolutely important too. But funny enough. if you have had trauma in your past, sleep is going to be a bitch. Being in bed is scary. Falling asleep is scary. Nightmares, night terrors. Without medication, sleep deprivation is major. I don’t sleep more than 3 to 4 hours a night. I can’t sleep next to someone. I can’t sleep when it is dark. I can’t sleep when there is noise. I don’t stay asleep because the tiniest movement anywhere, makes me wake up in panic. I am not on any sleeping medication, go figure how great my nights are. And there is no question that a lack of sleep is bad for blood sugar levels, for hormonal levels, for your heart, for your metabolism.
When Doctors are the Scary Monsters
The absolute worst issue, in my eyes, is the lack of ability to reach out to professionals. I see it in my friends, I have seen it in the people I support through my volunteer work. We are scared of people with authority. We are scared to be touched by others or to be naked with others. Naturally, to be touched by someone with authority, can be a major trigger. It is for me, for sure! I absolutely avoid going to doctors. For me it has to go so far that an ambulance is needed. It doesn’t matter what kind of manipulation someone tries on me. I am not going.
The last six months or so, my physical health has declined, and there are some things that a normal person would have gotten checked up six months ago. My thyroid levels have not been checked in two years. I have diabetes, and I am not on medication, and my blood glucose levels have been out of whack for a while now. I feel an extreme fatigue. I have heart rate issues, spasms, dizzyness. I have had some kind of cyst on my tongue for months on end now. Anyone would have gotten those things checked out by now. But not me.
Because I am scared of doctors. One of my abusers was a doctor. And I have had really really bad experiences with doctors in the past. I am also scared that it is something serious, and it won’t matter, because I am dying anyway and no one will help me. And parts of me actually don’t want to get help because they feel they deserve to suffer, or even worse so, deserve to die. It doesn’t help that I don’t have health insurance here yet. And that going to anyone working in the mental health field, puts me into a state of panic. I could very well die of something terrible, because of my inability to go and see a doctor. Like it happened to this one girl with Dissociative Identity Disorder that I know, who died of cervical cancer.
Yeah, and there is that, the Dissociative Identity Disorder. I haven’t even mentioned how that specific trauma related illness, complicates all those things even further. When there are a dozen opinions about any decisions you need to make in your head, then you often end up making no decision at all.
There needs to be more support!
So what am I saying with this post? I am saying that trauma in your past doesn’t only mess up your mental health. It also messes up your physical health. There are studies to prove how the chemical, biological and physiological processes get affected by long term trauma. But the worst part of it all is: you get the illnesses, but you are unable to get them treated, or take care of yourself. I personally feel that there is not enough focus on that. People with trauma issues need to be helped by the system, there needs to be more support in place to get them to see doctors, to take their meds, and to eat, drink and exercise. Because they are unable to do those things. They are slowly killing themselves, and everyone is talking about that an adult should be able to do the basics. Most people can’t fathom how someone with physical symptoms doesn’t get them checked out. But someone with trauma issues just can’t. Help them, don’t judge them, and don’t make things worse by dismissing real physical health struggles as something that is only “in our heads”.