Most of us experience trauma at some level, not just war veterans who witness and experience horrific terror, but simply by growing up as vulnerable children in a world where many parents are themselves traumatized and can’t always hold that vulnerability safe for a child. You might mistakenly think that you must experience incest, child abuse, parental abandonment, or living in a war zone in order to be traumatized, but trauma can be much more subtle. Psychologist Dawson Church, PhD defines a traumatizing event as something that is:
- Perceived as a threat to the person’s physical survival
- Overwhelms their coping capacity, producing a sense of powerlessness
- Produces a feeling of isolation and aloneness
- Violates their expectations
In his book Psychological Trauma, Dawson gives the example of Martie’s traumatizing event, which could have lasting consequences but might be easily overlooked if you were not attuned to the kinds of events that can traumatize a child.
When I was growing up, I idolized 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. 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 crybaby. Mom told me, “Big girls don’t cry.”
While it might be easily dismissed as just children tussling, this example meets all four criteria for a traumatizing event. Martie thought she was going to die when Gary lay on top of her, so she perceived a threat to her survival. She tried to cope by pushing him off, but he was too big so her coping attempt failed and she felt powerless. Being smothered by her brother violated her expectation that her family would keep her safe. When her mother failed to support and comfort her by dismissing her emotions with “Big girls don’t cry,” she was left feeling isolated and alone.
By this definition of trauma, almost all of us have experienced multiple traumatizing events in our lifetimes. In my case, I had a fairly benevolent childhood, but 12 years of medical training caused me to experience multiple events that meet this criteria for trauma. I also was held up at gunpoint by two masked gunmen in my twenties and had full on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder afterward. Most recently, I was attacked by a pit bull and started having PTSD-like flashbacks right afterward. Knowing what I know about the link between unresolved trauma and physical illness, I wanted to be proactive about healing the trauma right away. I am lucky to have at my fingertips a variety of gifted and ethical healers who treat trauma. I reached out right away and asked for help. The flashbacks stopped and haven’t come back.
Unhealed Trauma Predisposes to Disease
As I wrote about in Mind Over Medicine, there is a substantial amount of data linking mental health issues with physical disease. 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 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, which has resulted in over 50 peer-reviewed scientific articles. Patients were interviewed to determine whether they had experienced any of ten traumatizing events in childhood:
- 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 traumatizing childhood events are commonplace. Two-thirds of individuals reported at least one traumatizing childhood event. 40% of the patients reported two or more traumatizing 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. Traumatizing 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.
The Good News: Trauma Can Be Healed
If you’re someone who checks “yes” to these and many other traumatizing events, you might be feeling anxious right about now. Does this mean that if you’ve experienced trauma in your life, you’re now a ticking time bomb just waiting to get sick? Does it mean that you won’t be healed from your chronic illness? Does it mean the damage is done and it’s too late to undo it?