Research shows that adverse childhood experiences, chronic stress and traumatic events trigger emotional and physical reactions that can make us susceptible to compromised health. Chronic fatigue, chemical sensitivities, fibromyalgia, digestive problems, asthma, and other psychophysiological illnesses, such as migraines and back problems, are highly correlated with trauma. Also, common health issues such as heart disease, strokes, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and more, are all related to chronic stress.
What is trauma, and how does it affect health?
“Trauma is not the bad things that happened to you, but it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.” – Gabor Mate, M.D. Traumatic events can be physical, sexual, emotional, relational or all four. Trauma does not have to stem from highly traumatic events such as war, rape, or abuse, it can also be a result of more common experiences such as car accidents, medical procedures, loss of loved ones and natural disasters. We all have trauma to some degree.
When we feel threatened, we automatically go into high alarm. Our first response is to get away. If we can’t flee, we’ll fight for our lives. That failing, we’ll freeze, or collapse; it’s instinctual — most predators don’t eat “dead” prey.
When we become stuck in alarm or collapse, it seriously impacts our health, our relationships, and our life. Blood flows away from digestion, our immune system, our skin, the higher centers in our brain and into heart, lungs and the muscles of our arms and legs to prepare for flight or fight. When this becomes our default setting, our body is under chronic stress. This imbalances the body’s nervous system as well as our immune, endocrine, digestive systems, etc. All the body’s systems are interconnected.
We hear a lot these days about diet, supplements and herbs to strengthen our immune system, while ignoring the importance of resolving chronic stress patterns in order to improve immune function. There is a direct connection between chronic hyper/hypo arousal in the nervous system and a hyper/hypo immune response. Chronic stress arousal is the underlying cause or contributing factor in most chronic diseases and mental illnesses.
Even if we eat right, exercise and meditate, but have a dysregulated nervous system, we will not have a healthy immune system. However, it is possible to retrain our nervous system to be more regulated, balanced and resilient. Resolving the underlying dysregulation is essential to having good physical and mental health. Recent research is making this more widely known and understood.
When our organisms operate the way they’re designed, we’re activated when a threat appears. When the threat has passed, we naturally down-regulate to our “rest and digest” state. This is how we are designed to live most of the time. We are not meant to live as though there is a lion in the bush about to pounce on us!
How do we resolve trauma and get back to our natural optimum balance?
There are simple, effective practices and exercises we can do that are evidence-based and complement one another. They generally involve working with breath, sound, and movement. It is also important to resource the nervous system through doing more of what calms and soothes it.
Learning to breathe from the diaphragm is the foundation of any stress reduction program. The diaphragm is a large muscle located just below the lungs and heart. When we are stressed, we breath shallowly, high in the chest. This stressed breathing alone contributes to many health issues. Diaphragmatic breathing relaxes our whole system and, it is easy to learn. It is good to allow the exhale to be longer than the inhale and to breathe through your nose. And if you add humming on the exhale, that will bring the body into balance even faster!
There are many more exercises you can do on your own that you can learn from a somatic therapist trained in working with trauma. Additionally, there are effective trauma treatments that can restore your nervous system to resilience and regulation. EMDR and the related Flash Technique have been proven to be effective with a wide range of traumatic symptoms and PTSD. Other skillful trauma methods include Somatic Experiencing, Neurofeedback, Brainspotting, Emotional Freedom Technique, Heart Fluency, and more.
When working with chronic health issues, as well as depression or anxiety, it is important to include trauma treatment in your overall care.
John Lumiere-Wins is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner who was trained as a Marriage-Family Therapist. He has experience with Flash Technique, Heart Fluency, Emotional Freedom Technique, and worked with Neurofeedback for over a decade. John has a somatic therapy practice in Grass Valley. He is also a life-long spiritual practitioner. www.johnlumiere-wins.com/