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

Mental Health/Illness – Removing Stigma

In the second post of the series I want to address the stigma related to mental illness and getting help. Buckle up and get comfy because this post has a lot of information. The last post kind of explained where my first brush with anxiety and mental health came from. For this post, I am going to back away and give you the stats.

According to a 2014 Newsweek article, “nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness each year”. One in Five (42.5 million American adults), just let that settle for a moment. I know I don’t hear about my circle of friends talking about their mental health freely and openly like it’s so normal. These numbers came from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), I am fairly certain they are not running around an polling every person.

I also know that due to stigma there are many people who suffer in silence, afraid to speak up and get any kind of help. The US Surgeon General stated in 1999 that: “Powerful and pervasive, stigma prevents people from acknowledging their own mental health problems, much less disclosing them to others”

Per NAMI’s (National Alliance of Mental Illness) website the number of Americans with Mental Illness is now 46.6 Million, that’s 4.1 Million increase in five years.

Let’s break this down, according to DSM-IV, a mental disorder is a psychological syndrome or pattern which is associated with distress (e.g. via a painful symptom), disability (impairment in one or more important areas of functioning), increased risk of death, or causes a significant loss of autonomy; however it excludes normal responses such as grief from loss of a loved one, and also excludes deviant behavior for political, religious, or societal reasons not arising from a dysfunction in the individual.

If you go strictly by the DSM-IV it would appear that only the most debilitating, classified issues are mental illness. What about anxiety, general depression and countless others? According to the National Institute Mental Health (NIMH) they break these down into “Any Mental Illness” and “Serious Mental Illness”.

“Any mental illness (AMI) is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. AMI can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment (e.g., individuals with serious mental illness as defined below).

Serious mental illness (SMI) is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. The burden of mental illnesses is particularly concentrated among those who experience disability due to SMI.”

Per NIMH, 19.1% of American adults (18+) have some sort of anxiety disorder, 6.8% of adults have had PTSD in their lifetime. This isn’t just military and/or combat either, this includes domestic violence, accidents, natural or human caused disasters and a variety of other factors. World Health Organization (WHO) reports 25% of the world’s population from some form of mental illness. Why aren’t we discussing this more? Why does it take extreme acts to bring these issues to the forefront of the news stations?

If we remove the stigma of discussing mental health at an early age then perhaps more people would get the help they need and less people would feel isolated to the point of completing suicide or violence against others.

Now, what about a chronic illness and mental health? I currently have three diagnosis that are chronic, with no cure and you better believe that gives me anxiety. Harvard health put up an article that discussed anxiety and chronic illness, though for some reason they only looked at respiratory, GI and heart disease. Personally, I think they overlooked a huge portion of the demographic here but it is what it is. Worrying about your health, cost of health if you are in the United States and not one of the amazing countries where it’s free for everyone, the impact it has on your family and friends, of course you are going to have anxiety, any normal person would.

Depression is also increased for those with a chronic illness, per the NIMH website the most common are among the below:

  • Cancer
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

If you aren’t convinced yet that you should seek help if you suffer from anxiety, depression or another mental illness, just know, that constant “fight or flight” from anxiety is bad for your body and your brain. Depression and anxiety can increase inflammation in your body, mess up your stress hormones, interfere with your heart rate and circulation.

According to the National MS Society’s website grief, depression and anxiety are all very common mood changes that happen with a diagnosis. Obviously because the way MS hits people differently, different symptoms, degrees of the symptoms not everyone may get anxiety or depression. The anxiety stems from the unknowing of what is to come, how you will be any given day and the extent of your symptoms which can change at the drop of a hat.

Increased stress makes symptoms worse, which can make anxiety and depression worse. When your nerves and myelin is being attacked like frayed wires there will be an impact.

I encourage everyone to talk about mental health, mental illness and get a therapist. We need to remove the stigma of this silent thing happening to so many people so it is no longer the dirty little secret but part of a normal conversation.

Straight of the NAMI website,

Prevalence of Mental Illness

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. (11.2 million) experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.2
  • Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.3
  • 1.1% of adults in the U.S. live with schizophrenia.4
  • 2.6% of adults in the U.S. live with bipolar disorder.5
  • 6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.6
  • 18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.7
  • Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.8

Tips to Ease Anxiety, an Often Overlooked Effect of MS