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Episode 113: How Trauma Affects the Body (Hint: Yes It Can Influence Your Weight)

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Summary

My narcissistic relationship triggered my autoimmune disease. 

Yes there were certainly other factors at play: diet, genetics, birth control. 

But for years I couldn't speak my mind for fear of retribution. For years I was on high alert, unsure what would set him off. For years I felt like I was crazy, having every word twisted and turned against me. 

My body's defenses were chronically waging war against the ever-present emotional threat and eventually turned on me, attacking my own thyroid cells.

I've known this. I've been told that traumatic experiences can trigger autoimmune responses. But never before did I understand the scope of how much our emotional experiences cause physical ailments. 

That is, until I read 'The Body Keeps the Score' by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD. 

Now just like last week, this blog post does not follow the normal structure. This book was so dense with information, all I could do was take notes and write quotes that would guide the conversation between Gio and I on the episode. 

So if you're ready to find out the myriad of ways trauma affects the body (and yes that includes your weight), listen to the episode above (as opposed to trying to read my notes below).

And remember, we recorded our first episode on this series last week all about how trauma affects the brain (and therefore your willpower, motivation, relationship with food, and coping mechanisms).

And we'll be recording our final episode in the series next week all about modalities of healing (so don't worry.. there's hope!). 

How Trauma Affects the Body

  • Adrenaline is a stress hormone that helps us fight back or flee when we're in danger. It causes a rise in heart rate and blood pressure and is supposed to spike during times of danger but go back to normal when the danger is over. But stress hormones like this in traumatized people take way longer to normalize. They also spike quickly and disproportionately to mild stresses.
    • Chronically elevated stress hormones lead to memory and attention problems, irritability, sleep disorders, and other illnesses (depending on what area of the body is most susceptible in the individual). 
    • "Some people simply go into denial. Their bodies register the threat, but their conscious minds go on as if nothing has happened. However, even though the mind may learn to ignore the messages from the emotional brain, the alarm signals don't stop. The emotional brain keeps working and stress hormones keep sending signals to the muscles to tense for action or immobilize and collapse. The physical effects on the organs go on unabated, until they demand notice when they are expressed as illness. Medications, drugs, and alcohol can also temporarily dull or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings. But the body continues to keep the score."
  • "After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system. A survivor's energy becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases. This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism: body, mind, and brain."
  • Your agency in being able to escape the trauma greatly impacts whether or not you'll have lasting scars. If you were unable to escape, your body will continue to respond as if a threat is there even when it isn't. This can lead to numbing practices because the body wants to shut down in the face of a constant, inescapable threat.
  • When we feel danger, we'll first respond with a call for help, either verbally or through facial expressions and posture. If no one comes to help, the threat increases and the emotional brain kicks in and signals the fight or flight response which mobilizes muscles, the heart, and the lungs. If there is no way out, our body will activate our emergency system, the dorsal-vagal complex. "This system reaches below the diaphragm to the stomach, kidney, and intestines and drastically reduces metabolism throughout the body, heart rate plunges, we can't breath, and our gut stops working  or empties (literally scaring the shit out of us)."
  • Even when we try to ignore our problems and block out our body's distress signals, the issues don't go away, they just show up as symptoms like chronic back and neck pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, digestive problems, spastic colon, IBS, chronic fatigue, and even some forms of asthma. (Traumatized children have 50 times the rate of asthma as their non-traumatized peers.)
  • RA cells quickly respond to environmental threats they've encountered before. RO cells on the other hand are kept in reserve to respond to new threats the body hasn't met previously. "In patients with histories of incest, the proportion of RA cells that are ready to pounce is larger than normal which makes the immune system oversensitive so it's prone to mount a defense when none is needed, even when this means attacking the body's own cells."
  • A 28 year old woman went through a program that used supplemented absolute fasting to bring on dramatic weight loss without surgery. Over 51 weeks her weight dropped from 408 pounds to 132 pounds. But a few months later, she had regained more weight than was thought biologically possible in such a short period of time. Apparently, her new body attracted a male coworker who started to flirt with her, she went home and began to eat (both during the day and while sleep walking). As it turns out, she had experienced incest with her grandfather... As the heads of the program started asking more questions of their participants, they discovered most of their morbidly obese patients had been sexually abused as children. 
  • Those with an ACE (adverse childhood experiences) score of 6 or more had a 15%< chance than those with an ACE score of 0 of suffering from any of the 10 leading causes of death in the US. They were 2x as likely to suffer from cancer and 4x more likely to have emphysema. 
  • "Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It's not so much the perpetrators who hopefully are no longer around to hurt them, but their own physical sensations that now are the enemy. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut... It's not surprising that so many trauma survivors are compulsive eaters and drinkers, fear making love, and avoid many social activities. Their sensory world is largely off limits. In order to change you need to open yourself to your inner experience."

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