To understand the link between trauma and chronic illness, I was in a better position than most. As a trained mental health practitioner, my studies educated me about the brain and the impact that trauma can have on an individual. Additionally, my personal experience of childhood trauma motivated me to research the field and engage in treatments so I could reach my potential. Despite my best efforts to sustain the achievements in my life, every facet of my existence came to a crashing halt when I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).
ME/CFS is a complex condition that affects many bodily functions including but not limited to, immune, endocrine, digestive and cardiac systems. Chronic fatigue is a hallmark symptom of ME/CFS but does not constitute the syndrome in its entirety. Other symptoms of ME/CFS commonly include chronic muscular and joint pain, cognitive dysfunction, muscle twitches and numbness, dizziness and headaches, digestive issues sleep difficulties and sensitivity to light, noise, tastes and smells¹.
In my case, ME/CFS meant I went from being a fitness enthusiast to not being able to walk to the kitchen, from holding down two jobs to not being able to work at all, from writing a thesis to not being able to read more than a paragraph at once and from interacting with many people in a given day to not being able to hold a conversation with my family members. The development of my condition worsened over the course of many months. Similarly, my ongoing recovery journey has been slow and gradual with some positive turning points.
When I had enough energy to start researching ME/CFS, I discovered that a dysregulated nervous system caused by significant and ongoing stress had set the foundation for this condition. Further readings that explore this link between stress and physical ailments include ‘When the Body Says No’ by Gabor Mate and ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk. Such resources and others suggest that trauma can contribute to the development of a hypervigilant nervous system and ongoing stress. The stress response is adaptive in short doses, but chronic stress and high cortisol levels are known to damage body tissue and disrupt systems such as those implicated in ME/CFS and other chronic illnesses2 .
To manage my symptoms, I underwent many treatments led by a team of medical professionals that ranged from nutritional supplements to graded exercise therapy. It wasn’t until I began to delve into my unconscious programming that had been influenced by the past experiences that I felt I was able to take more control of my recovery journey. Some of the inner work that I embarked on centred around acknowledging my traumas and the protective mechanisms that I had consequently adopted. I had learned that it was safer to repress my emotions when in a state of fear rather than reach out for help. Therefore, a large part of my healing involved recognising and expressing the emotion stored in my body which had built up over the years.
To rewrite some of the unhelpful beliefs and perceptions linked to my ongoing stress and trauma, I participated in a group healing week and an individual personal retreat at ‘Heal for Life’. The ‘Heal for Life’ model is holistic in nature and aims to ameliorate the effects of childhood trauma by focusing on inner child work, somatic release, attachment theory and transactional analysis. For further information about ‘Heal for Life’ programs please visit healforlife.com.au. Personally, the combination of these retreat programs allowed me to gain relevant knowledge about trauma, receive support from a relatable community, feel safe and supported, which in turn allowed me space to begin to shift some of my relational patterns formed earlier in life.
I’m still in the process of recovery, but the awareness of the link between trauma and physical health was a significant positive step for me. Healing requires persistent and consistent inner work, but I believe substantial progress is possible within a safe environment and a strong support network. I hope my insights can shed light for others that are in helping roles and those who are directly experiencing a chronic illness.
¹ Emerge Australia website: what is ME/CFS? www.emerge.org.au
2 ‘When the body says no’. Gabor Mate.