Trauma can make us sick: How I found a key to healing
Written by Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW
March 24, 2020
Published at Tiny Buddha
“This post was republished with permission from tinybuddha.com. You can find the original post here.”
“Our bodies contain our histories—every chapter, line, and verse of every event and relationship in our lives.” ~Caroline Myss
I could hear my teacher talking, but I wasn’t listening. Staring at the math homework in front of me, I couldn’t get the sound of my heartbeat out of my head.
Two times two equals, thump thump, equals thump thump, four.
The more I focused on my heartbeat, the louder it became. I could even feel beating in my chest.
Noticing the clock, I had ten more minutes before my mom would meet me in the school office. We had a meeting scheduled with the school nurse. I dreaded it.
Was I in trouble?
If so, then why was I meeting the nurse and not the principal? Besides, I was an A+ student. I never got in trouble.
At the sound of the bell, I made my way reluctantly to the office. As planned, Mom was there. The school nurse, a small woman with a huge smile, met the both of us.
“Come in,” she said, as she motioned in the direction of her door.
I looked over at my mom and she looked at me, shrugging her shoulders. We were both clueless about the purpose of this meeting.
“Uh huh,” clearing her throat, Nurse Smith broke the ice…
“Let’s get to it. Casey, you are too thin. It concerns me.”
Looking at my mom, she said, “Mom, do you know why Casey is losing so much weight?”
My mom quickly described our diet and how she prepared meals for me, “balanced and complete.”
“Is Casey seeing a doctor?” Nurse Smith followed up.
My mom, in an agitated voice said, “When necessary we go to our family physician.”
Looking at me intently, Nurse Smith patted me on the shoulder,
“Okay, Casey, you eat more of your mom’s good cooking and get some weight on you. I don’t want to see you back in my office until you fill out a bit.”
This was one of many incidents where people, including professionals, noticed something physical about me, made assumptions, but never asked me about my experience.
No one asked me about my perceptions of my weight.
Did I notice changes in the way my pants fit?
Did I notice changes in my desire to eat?
Instead, a band-aid approach—eat my mom’s great food—was recommended, and I was sent on my way.
It was assumed that if I ate more, my weight would increase.
Was eating more also the solution for my fast heartbeat?
Months later, during a physical education drill, my teacher confirmed my rapid heartbeat. My teacher was not only concerned, but I was banned from taking physical education classes until my heartbeat was “normal.”
Saddened that I couldn’t take a class that I really enjoyed, no one, including my physicians, offered me any solutions. After wearing heart monitors and complying with many tests, I was diagnosed with tachycardia. This is a medical term, or as I like to call it, a fancy name for not knowing the cause for elevated heartbeat.
The Importance of our Thoughts, Feelings, and Perceptions
I went through most of my young adult years being diagnosed with a number of conditions based on my physical symptoms and observations of my outward appearance.
No one inquired about my internal environment—my thoughts, feelings, beliefs.
No one asked me about my life either.
What was it like for me at home?
What kind of relationship did I have with my parents?
Did I experience any stress, or even understand the meaning of stress?
Did I feel safe and cared for physically and emotionally?
Needless to say, my mom’s excellent cooking didn’t make me gain weight. I continued to lose weight. My heartbeat continued racing too.
It wasn’t until my mom took me to see a psychologist that I was diagnosed with an eating disorder. The real reason I was losing weight: I was very ill.
It was during therapy sessions that the psychologist pointed out I would not gain weight or begin to repair my relationship with food until the conflict between my parents remitted.
She was absolutely right.
The psychologist made a connection between my weight loss and conflict in my home.
The focus wasn’t on my diet as the cause. The focus was on the emotional turmoil in my life.
This was the first time anyone connected my physical symptoms to stress in my environment.
Trauma Can Make Us Sick
At the time of my weight loss and rapid heartbeat, my parents were going through a tumultuous, and by my view, traumatic divorce. Conflict was normal in my home, and I was a classic “child the middle of this conflict.”
As my parents argued over their lost relationship and years of service to each other, I was lost in the midst of their problems.
Divorce is one of many traumatic events people can experience.
Any event perceived as threatening, disempowering, helpless, or out of control is a trauma.
Trauma contributes to physical symptoms in the body.
In other words, one of my traumas—my parents’ divorce– made me sick.
After years of therapy, I came to understand that anxiety is a mental health condition. Anxiety can present with many symptoms, one of which is tachycardia, or a rapid heartbeat.
I was relieved. Suddenly the reasons for my rapid heartbeat made sense!
Animal Instincts Keep Us Safe But Can Make Us Sick
When a person’s perception of safety is threatened, the body goes into a natural response called fight-or-flight. Like an animal in the wild who is about to become prey for another, the body mobilizes a response to react and protect.
People who live in traumatic environments experience threats frequently. Just because we aren’t going to really be eaten, the body doesn’t know the difference, and it mobilizes to save us just the same. Increased heart rate is a side effect.
I did not perceive my home as safe. The conflict between my parents was traumatic. My body didn’t know the difference between an animal getting ready to eat me or any other threat.
When my parents argued, my body mobilized a fight-or-flight response, which caused my heart rate to increase. Anxiety, living on edge, and fearing for what was going to happen next, became a way of living for me—even when my parents weren’t arguing. This explains why my heart rate was elevated even while I was at school doing something I enjoyed.
Making Connections That Help Us Heal
I am grateful I saw a psychologist at such a young age. She planted the seed for bringing my awareness to connections between illness and trauma.
However, for decades following these sessions, no one else made these connections, and gradually I forgot about how intertwined our physical symptoms are to our histories of trauma and stress.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune inflammatory bowel disease, that I was compelled to go back through my life and connect the dots in hopes I would find answers to aid in my healing.
Sure enough, I didn’t have to look very far to discover physical symptoms that were preceded by a traumatic event in my life.
Empowered by this information, I knew I had found the answers to my healing.
My only task was to find a professional: a physician, healer, or licensed mental health therapist who could help me integrate my life with my symptoms.
Once there is an awareness of the connections between illness and trauma, it is possible to find resources.
Functional medicine physicians, somatic therapies, alternative modalities, and sensorimotor psychotherapists are just several of many options which look at healing as integrative.
You Are an Expert on Your Body
I have explored many therapies and I continue to improve. However, I believe healing is a lifelong process. I have to be continuously aware of how sensitive my body is to stress. After all, it had a lifetime of programming to be geared for fight-or-flight.
When stress is in my life, my body will often have physical symptoms. Sometimes simple interactions with colleagues are enough to trigger my body’s threat response.
Living with Crohn’s disease has many challenges. True healing began when I recognized that my past history of childhood trauma laid a foundation for disease in my body and continues to contribute to how the Crohn’s Disease shows up.
Now that I have this awareness, the possibilities for healing are exponential. The more I support my body in healing from trauma, the more my physical symptoms improve and the stronger my immune system becomes.
Needless to say, it isn’t an easy journey. But never lose hope.
Even though conventional medical models continue to separate physical from emotional, solutions are plentiful. This means that people like you and I must brave the terrain, making connections about our own bodies and lives and seeking treatments that offer this integration.
In many ways, we have to educate our physicians and healers about these connections. As we are experts on our own bodies, we hold many answers to our own healing based on a lifetime of living with ourselves.
No one knows you better than you know yourself.
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