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When I found out that I had fibromyalgia, I started to read and research. I like to deal with the unknown by finding as much information as I possibly can.
I was surprised when I came across sources that said some research shows that fibromyalgia is actually a nervous system disorder.
There is a lot of research that suggests that the effects of psychological trauma, particularly childhood trauma, permanently alter our brain structures. Our brains are unable to properly process sensory information and therefore our stress response can be over activated, thus sending pain signals to places where there is no actual threat.
Obviously this explanation is grossly oversimplified because I am not a neuroscientist, but whatever.
One study found that 37% of participants with a history of child abuse reported a health problem in the past 12 months, as compared to 22% of participants with no abuse history.
More research discovered that 62% of CFS patients were positive for at least one form of childhood trauma, as compared to 24% of control participants. Exposure to one form of trauma was associated with a 5.6-fold increased risk for CFS.
These aren’t small numbers. That’s a huge difference!
It always puzzled me then, when people said fibromyalgia was pain without an actual cause – unexplained physical pain.
Was the pain really unexplained? If we know that trauma permanently alters our brain structure, isn’t that an explanation in itself?
It’s not like there was no origin at all for the pain – maybe the response was just so delayed that no one made the connection.
I recently started reading the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk. If you want a more scientific answer as to the effects of trauma on our bodies, I seriously recommend checking it out.
As I have always sucked at science, I’m going to put it into basics for you.
Trauma and the Body
It’s not a new concept that trauma has physical side effects for our bodies.
There are many researchers out there who are much smarter than I am who have spent a lot of time looking into this idea.
Complex and long term trauma can impact us in so many ways, but for the sake of you actually understanding what the heck I’m talking about, I’m only going to highlight some of the biggest ones.
Those who have experienced long term trauma can often suffer from what is known as “body armoring” or “muscle armoring.” Body armoring is essentially the body bracing itself for an impact.
An official definition for armoring is, “chronic patterns of involuntary tension in the body that dampen or block emotional expression, alter perception of both the outer and the inner psychological world, diminish or eliminate kinesthetic awareness and other sensations, and resist range of motion and movement.”
While the pain may feel slightly similar to waking up with a knot in your neck from sleeping at an odd angle, armoring is very different in the fact that it is chronic and many do it without any awareness! Many survivors of trauma may have issues with pain in their shoulders, neck, back, jaw, and other areas from constantly clenching their muscles.
My dentist recently had to make me a night guard. I was clenching my jaw so hard while I was sleeping that it was causing excruciating pain all day. This was completely involuntary and PAINFUL.
Muscle armoring is definitely one of the worst side effects of my trauma.
How Trauma Changes the Brain
Long term trauma leads to shrinkage in prefrontal cortex, corpus callosum, and hippocampus.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that regulates emotions. Damage to this area of the brain due to trauma can cause an inability to regulate emotions like fear and anger. This damage can also lead to a stress response being activated in the absence of any danger.
The corpus collosum connects the left and right sides of the brain. For those who have suffered trauma, the area is often reduced. This prevents the two sides of the brain working in a coordinated way
The hippocampus is responsible for storing and retrieving memories, while also differentiating between past and present experiences. Shrinkage in the hippocampus leads to an inability to regulate memories or differentiate between past and present. This can also have an impact on attention and learning!
Survivors of complex trauma also usually have an enlarged and more reactive amygdala.
The amygdala is in control of your stress response. An overactive amygdala makes you more susceptible to severe reactions. This might lead to chronic stress, heightened fear, and increased irritation. It might also make it harder for those suffering to calm down or even have healthy sleep.
Your autonomic nervous system has two big parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
When you are faced with a threat, this activates the sympathetic nervous system. This is associated with the fight or flight response and the release of cortisol throughout the bloodstream.
The sympathetic nervous system will communicate to the parasymathetic nervous system to slow down functions such as digestion, in order to save energy for combatting the perceived threat.
The parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to put the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system when the time is right so that the body stops releasing stress chemicals and shifts back toward relaxation, digestion, and regeneration.
For those who have suffered traumatic stress, however, they often have an overactive sympathetic nervous system. This means that they perceive threats even when there are none.
Trauma survivors are also shown to have an under active parasympathetic nervous system. This results in difficulty turning off the stress response even when the threat has passed.
Those who have lived with repeated trauma need to “rewire” their brains from old thought patterns and habits of mind, whether conscious or unconscious.
Trauma can cause changes in reward pathways. This can mean that survivors anticipate less pleasure from different activities and may appear less motivated.
In addition, those who experience childhood trauma may experience an impact on their attachment styles, which can lead to long term health and social impacts.
Children who grow up in chaos don’t have a secure base, and learn that they can’t rely on their caregiver for comfort.
This means that they struggle to calm themselves when threatened. If a child can’t regulate their emotional states or rely on others to help them, their biological fight/flight/freeze response is repeatedly triggered.
The overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to what is known as toxic stress.
Prolonged high cortisol and ghrelin creates greater reactivity to stress. This can cause long term damage to cells, structures of the body, and other hormone glands such as the thyroid.
The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis regulates the stress response.
Acute stress may initially increase inflammation which will eventually be decreased by glucocorticoids (a class of corticosteroids that help reduce stress) as the body attempts to maintain homeostasis.
However, chronic stress may lead to HPA axis dysregulation, which may lead to decrease in cortisol and thereby increased inflammatory markers (e.g., decreased glucocorticoid levels)
As stated above, when someone suffers from chronic stress they can actually see a decrease in cortisol which can create increased inflammation.
This can lead to many diseases including: asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, etc.
Those that have suffered from long term trauma are shown to have low levels in many key neurotransmitters.
Studies have shown that trauma victims have low levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
Low serotonin levels have been shown to lead to depression, problems with anger control, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and suicide.
Related Post: Recognizing an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
In trauma victims, dopamine transmitters are often underdeveloped or damaged.
Dopamine controls arousal, alertness, attention, and is vital for giving motivation. Those with low dopamine levels are more vulnerable to addiction. Substances such as cocaine, heroin, nicotine, and alcohol all increase levels of dopamine.
GABA is the neurotransmitter that acts like a brake to the excitatory neurotransmitters that lead to anxiety. GABA is severely reduced in those who have suffered from trauma, which creates issues regulating anxiety levels.
So what does this mean…..
I know a lot of people usually skip reading the conclusion, but if there was ever a time not to skip the conclusion, it is right now.
Because this is the most important part to understand. Those suffering from chronic illness already face enough scrutiny about if our symptoms are all in our heads or not. Sitting around trying to figure out what came first: the trauma, or the pain…. is not really helping anyone.
However, we can’t ignore that there’s some sort of relationship between them (although not for everyone).
The importance of this relationship is not really within which came first, but instead how to address both together to work towards a goal of overall wellness.
If you have a presence of both trauma and chronic illness – it is imperative to try to heal both together. By neglecting one, you cannot truly manage the other and vice versa.
It is very important to frame your mindset around this idea in the correct way. You are not at fault for your trauma, or for your chronic illness.
My point here is not to say that those who are suffering from chronic illness and trauma can “think” themselves out of their pain. I don’t believe this is true, and I think that this can easily perpetuate negative stereotypes and assumptions that the chronically ill already have to face.
My goal in writing this article is to highlight that the effects of trauma on the brain can exacerbate chronic illness. This means that taking a holistic look at health could be very beneficial in helping us feel better.
It is also important to remember that while this may apply to many of us living with chronic illness, it does not apply to everyone. Some people may have chronic illness but no past trauma that exacerbates it.
This is a lot of information to take in, and I only scratched the surface! I hope that as time continues, I can share with you all some of the best ways that I have found to address healing from trauma and chronic illness together.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, here are some of the sources I used:
- The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk
- THE IMPACT OF ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES ON PHYSICAL HEALTH IN COLLEGE STUDENTS: A REPLICATION AND EXTENSION OF THE ACE STUDY by Irina Khrapatina; Indiana University of Pennsylvania; August 2016