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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Autoimmune Disorders


We've known for a long time that childhood trauma impacts overall health, but within the last few decades, we've come to learn how childhood trauma impacts health. Research has indicated that there may be a connection between childhood traum and an increased risk of developing autoimmune disorders. Autoimmune disorders are disorders that occur when the immune system starts attacking the body's own tissues, causing damage and inflamation. Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as an ACE score, which includes different forms of trauma like abuse, household dysfuntion, neglect, and addiction, have all been studied in relation to their impact on health outcomes, including autoimmune diseases.


Listed below are a few examples of autoimmune disorders:

  • Lupus

  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Type 1 Diabetes

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBS)

  • Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS)

  • Psoriasis

  • Graves' Disease

  • Hashimoto's

  • Scleroderma

  • Myasthenia Gravis

  • Vasculitis

  • Vitiligo

  • Celiac Disease



Although there's evidence suggesting a causation between childhood trauma and developing an autoimmune disorder, not everyone who experiences childhood trauma will develop an autoimmune disorder. There are other roles that come into play, such as genetic factors and environmental influences. The relationship between childhood trauma and autoimmune disorders is complex.


In today's blog post, we're going to explore how childhood trauma can cause autoimmune disorders on a cellular and psychosocial level, and how we can take active steps to heal.


Our Body's Response to Childhood Trauma

  • Inflammatory Response: Childhood trauma can cause long-term changes in the body's ability to respond to stress. When we're chronically living under stress, which is the reality for many children growing up in dysfunctional and abusive homes, our immune systems become dysregulated, resulting in chronic inflammation. Persistent inflammation is one of the body's triggers to the development and progression of autoimmune diseases.

  • HPA Axis Dysfunction: The HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) axis plays a crucial role in the body's response to stress, homeostasis, energy metabolism, and neuropsychiatric function. It helps us regulate our mood and emotions, digestion, immune responses, and sexual activity. The HPA axis can become dysregulated by childhood trauma, causing a major impact on the immune system, contributing to autoimmune responses.

  • Sympathetic Nervous System Activation: Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is where our "fight, flight, freeze, and fawn" responses are stored. Childhood trauma can activate the SNS, causing the release of stress hormones, including adrenaline, which prepares the body to respond to a perceived threat. When our SNS is chronically activated, our stress levels stay at a heightened level.

  • Epigenetic Changes: This one is pretty wild: trauma can influence gene expression through epigenetic modifications. Trauma most literally can change our genes because trauma is not measured by the event, but rather how the person's body experiences the event. These modifications alter how genes regulate themselves in stress response, immune function, and mental health. Epigenetic changes have been shown to contribute to long-term effects of childhood trauma on mental and physical health.

  • Psychological & Behavioral Consequences: Childhood trauma often leads to the development of mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and complex trauma. It can also cause behavioral consequences, like issues forming healthy relationships, or engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms that involve addiction and/or substance abuse.

  • Brain Changes: The amygdala, a region of the brain that's associated with our emotions and helps us process anything threat-related, can become hyperactive from childhood trauma. The pre-frontal cortex, which plays in role in emotional regulation and decision-making, can also become affected by childhoood trauma, causing difficulties in emotion regulation.

  • Psychosocial Factors: The emotional and psychological consequences of childhood trauma, such as experiences chronic depression, stress, and anxiety, can contribute to the development of autoimmune disorders.

Healing

Everyone's body responds to childhood trauma differently, and not everyone who experiences trauma will have the same response patterns. Healthy coping strategies, resilience factors, and support systems play an important role in mitigating the impact of childhood trauma on a person's well-being. If you're living with an autoimmune disorder or know someone who is, listed below are a few active steps you can take to start your healing journey:

  1. Medical Care - Working closely with healthcare professions who specialize in autoimmune disorders can help individuals manage the medical aspects of their condition.

  2. Therapy - Therapists who focus on trauma-informed therapies can be beneficial for people living with autoimmune disorders because it can help the person begin to process the trauma stored in their body that contributes to the condition.

  3. Mind-Body Techniques - Mindfulness techniques like yoga, meditation, or deep-breathing exercises help regulate the stress response and give the body space to fully relax.

  4. Exercise - Regular physical activity has been shown to have positive effects on our physical and mental health. Consult with a healthcare professional about what type of physical activity would be best for you if you're living with an autoimmune disorder.

  5. Sleep - Quality sleep is crucial for overall health and healing. Creating a healthy sleep schedule for yourself is life changing.

  6. Self-Compassion - Living with an autoimmune disorder comes with many emotions. Acknowledge and validate your emotions and experiences without judgment. Practice self-care.

  7. Coping Skills - Create healthy coping skills, like journaling, spending time with friends, creative expressions, or engaging in any activities that help you feel relaxed and fill you with joy.

  8. Education - Learn about your autoimmune disorder and how it affects your body. Learn about how trauma affects your body. Understanding the condition you have can empower you to make informed decisions about your health. You deserve that.


Healing from the impact of childhood trauma, while also managing an autoimmune disorder, is an ongoing process that is certain to feel emotionally taxing along the way. Remember, healing is not linear. It's a day-by-day journey, and we're all just walking each other home.


 

At Root Counseling, we understand the impact of childhood trauma on the body and are passionate about helping clients learn the importance of this connection in order to foster deep healing. If you're interested in scheduling a session with one of our therapists, you can find us here.





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