ACEs – The Link Between Trauma and Chronic Illnesses

I know what some of you are probably thinking but just stick with me here. When I told my therapist I was going to tackle mental health on my blog she asked me if I was going to do a post on ACEs. I had NO IDEA what this was, she gave me a brief overview and I was hooked. When searching the internet about this thing I hadn’t heard of the term before but I knew there were studies relating trauma to chronic illnesses so of course I decided to break it down. There are a lot of people who want the summary and don’t want to do all the internet sleuthing that gives me a sense of control over all the things I cannot actually control, after all, knowledge is power right?

ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. The breakdown of this includes but is not limited to:

  • Abuse: emotional, physical and sexual
  • Bullying, Violence of or by another child, sibling or adult
  • Homelessness
  • Households with substance abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse, incarceration, parental abandonment, divorce and loss
  • involvement in child welfare system
  • Medical trauma
  • Natural disasters/war
  • Neglect: emotional, physical or both
  • Racism, sexism or any other type of discrimination
  • Violence in the community

Now you are supposed to count up how many of these things happened to you (there are technically 10). Here’s the thing though, trauma is anything that is a perceived threat to a person’s physical survival, overwhelms the ability to cope, causing a lack of power or makes them feel isolated and alone.

Studies have been done regarding the link of childhood trauma and future health issues. Two thirds of people reported at least one traumatic event in their childhood. 40% reported two or more and 12.5% reported more than 4 traumatic events during their childhood. When the researchers looked further they were able to link traumatic childhood experiences to adult diseases including cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, bone fractures, depression, obesity, smoking, substance abuse, high blood pressure, and the more trauma experienced the sicker the person was.

When I count mine up, it’s 7, 7 of the 10 experiences I had as a child. Seven is A LOT. That is not even including the things I grew up in Southern California being told that terrified me and kept me in a constant state of anxiety about my safety and well being. It also does not count separations like in the abuse section there are three types listed, am I supposed to count 1 for each type I experienced, I didn’t. Now I wonder if I am inadvertently causing my children adverse experiences because I am sick. Before the guilt spiral starts I am going to move on to more research data.

Oh good, there’s hope. If you are a person who experienced one or more (or many) of these you can work with a mental health professional and there are techniques to work through this. Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) is one of them, it takes about 20 sessions and it desensitizes you to the memories so you are more like viewing it from a third person’s perspective and no longer have an emotional reaction to the memories. Somatic Experiencing, Advanced Integrative Therapy, EFT, Psych-K and Rapid Resolution Therapy (RRT). I actually had a RRT session with my therapist for my standard PTSD and it worked and it was amazing. I noticed a huge difference on the second day after the process. She did warn me that all my Complex PTSD may rise to the surface once it was resolved though.

Standard talk therapy can do more harm by re-traumatizing a person when discussing these childhood events though so you must have a person you trust who can help you address the issues with care in a safe environment.

Here is where removing the stigma comes into play again though. People who feel shame about getting help can get all sorts of illnesses, and autoimmune diseases from the trauma you try to bury deep, very deep down and then it’s not correlated. Lack of good, standard mental health care is an issue in the United States for sure, I can’t speak for other countries but I know how difficult it is to find a person you feel safe with and you can afford to see on a regular basis. My therapist originally didn’t take insurance so I paid for all my session out of pocket. Then she did take insurance but she was technically out of network and the insurance company wanted me to try the 100 people in network first. Uh, what the fuck? No, I had been seeing her for more than two years by that point and I sure as shit was not going to change who I talk to because she already knows all my issues.

ACEs can be worked through and if you are a parent and want to help your child who many be experiencing some of these life events, you can. There’s all sorts of websites that teach you how to make your kid resilient to the traumas. Provide a safe place for them to feel their emotions and discuss what’s bothering them. You may need to work hard at it though, I never told my parents any of my fears because I didn’t want to be a “bother” or seem weak. Kids pick up on more than you know so it takes intent to help, but it can be done.

Essential Guide to Chronic Illness, Trauma and The Nervous System: Keys to Quelling the Volcano

Personal Side Note about Complex PTSD

I decided to write about this one specifically because I have it. I have been reading The Complex PTSD Workbook by Arielle Schwartz, PhD over the past few weeks.

I’ve had the book for close to two years and just never felt ready for the heaviness of the subject and memories I would have to face. Facing truths you’ve tried to bury and pretend aren’t real for over 30 years is a challenging thing to bring to the surface.

I had disassociation from memories that I have played off as no big deal my whole life when in fact are a HUGE deal for a child of 5 or 6. Other things that happened I had never spoke a word of until I felt safe enough with my amazing husband to utter the words out loud without feeling judged, like some how my toddler self was at fault for the things that were done to me.

If it wasn’t for the support of my husband and my amazing therapist there’s no way I would know that my anger is actually anxiety or fright, or sometimes sadness that makes me feel I’m weak.

Anger is my Viking ancestors fighting through anything that remotely feels vulnerable even if it kills me. I have a tattoo of a Valkyrie on my back to remind me of the strength I want and pretend to have.

I’m still alive, I’m still working toward happiness. Even in the face of multiple illnesses causing disability I’m still trying to be the best version of my broken self. You should too, it’s hard but it’s worth it.

Mental Health – Complex PTSD

In case you missed the first two, this is the third post about mental health. While not actually necessary to read them in order it may be helpful in the over all context. I am going to give the low down on this before doing the post about my experience.

When discussing PTSD most people immediately think of active or veteran military, combat situations, being shot at, seeing your teammates blown up by bombs like in the movies. Those people would be right, but there are at least two different types of PTSD, the standard PTSD following traumatic events (either in combat or perhaps domestic violence, severe motor vehicle accidents and natural disasters) and Complex PTSD. PTSD occurs after one traumatic event, C-PTSD occurs after numerous events, usually within childhood.

Let me first say that of course not every person who is in combat, a victim of domestic violence or a natural disaster will get PTSD. It’s this tricky thing that happens when your brain doesn’t want to or cannot process the trauma being thrown at you. On the surface you may get agitated more easily, anxious, maybe depressed, not interested in doing things in public or shying away from the things that somehow remind you of the trauma. I am not going to pretend to know what the members of the military who suffer from PTSD shy away from, but I know that people who suffer domestic violence at the hand of their spouse, significant other (once out of that relationship) most likely find it difficult to trust another person in that role. MVAs (motor vehicle accidents) can cause PTSD, this results in said person becoming more tense or anxious when in a car, nervous about driving through certain areas or intersections, perhaps squealing at perceived threats (don’t judge me).

According to the National Center for PTSD’s website “in some cases people experience chronic trauma that continues or repeats for months or years at a time. The current PTSD diagnosis often does not fully capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with prolonged, repeated trauma. People who experience chronic trauma often report additional symptoms alongside formal PTSD symptoms, such as changes in their self-concept and the way they adapt to stressful events.”

So Complex PTSD is not your standard PTSD, it is chronic trauma over the course of months or years, repeated trauma. It does not need to be the same trauma happening either. It can be domestic violence, bullying, childhood neglect, a car accident, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and numerous other variations. It’s complex for a reason. Most frequently, as a result of this chronic trauma, people who suffer from C-PTSD have negative self-conceptions.

PTSD can change the biology of the brain, causing hypersensitivity in the Amygdala which causes a person to see more things as threats. The hippocampus, in charge of converting short term memory to long term can shrink. ¬†Finally, decreasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex’s left side (memory and language) and increasing on the right side which can cause mood swings.

C-PTSD has all the symptoms of PTSD but also includes more. Dissociation are the traumatic events, impaired ability to form healthy relationships, loss of meaning for life or even religious connections. Somatization, “psychological pain is “converted” into physical pain-digestive issues, migraines, or otherwise unexplained physical symptoms.”

People trying to deal or not deal with the trauma in a healthy way can have addictive behaviors, drinking, drug use, and emotional eating are a few. Self injury or harm is one of the more serious addictive things that can occur with C-PTSD patients. Looking at this from the outside I could see how inflicting pain on yourself to deal with the helplessness of the pain inflicted on a person by others would be a sort of self control for the trauma.

There are many old school and new evolving approaches to treating both types of PTSD. I encourage everyone to see out a mental health expert to work on moving through the trauma. I have worked through my regular PTSD with my therapist and we are starting to work on my Complex PTSD. It’s not going to be an easy task but I firmly believe everyone should have a chance to live their best, happiest life with a positive self conception. It may take me a while but I am working towards that goal.

As always, when discussing medical information the links are at the bottom of the page. I would love to hear from you, comments, questions, suggestions.