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The Physiological Echoes of Trauma

I have spent the entire day so far with my dad at his cardiologist. A routine check-up, but when you are 80 years old and ailing, there are really no routine check-ups. Yesterday we were in Baton Rouge for most of the day at a different specialist. I am honored to be able to serve my father in this way, and indeed this is one of the main reasons we moved to Louisiana after my sister died: to help like this. Still, it takes a lot out of me, physically, even though it’s not at all demanding of anything but time.

Why does it affect me so? Because of this autoimmune condition that has come back on after a year in remission. I talked to the therapist who helped me, along with Dante, get past being so sick with it a year or so ago, and asked him why I was struggling today, given that, thanks to Dante, him, and my priest, I have put into the past the hard issues that initially kept me so sick. I mean, I know the three months of intense stress late last fall and winter spent writing the book was the most recent trigger, but why am I still struggling with this three months later?

During that long sick period before my Dante healing, I knew exactly why I was in the ditch. But now? I don’t get it.

The therapist explained that it’s not easy for any of us to watch our parents decline physically. Big changes are coming — death, he meant — changes that are a natural part of life, but if we already have compromised immune systems, even stress that’s not normally a big deal can have an outsized effect on us. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense. To see my once-strong father suffering so much is really hard, especially because I have always regarded him as a sort of monument to vitality and command. And now, he shuffles forward on a walker, his aging body a shell of itself, and can command nothing. At a subconscious level, said the therapist, it must be harder on me to see as one of his caregivers than I am aware of.

I bring this up now not only to explain the lack of extensive blogging yesterday and today (and because I’m about to have to go crash for a little mono nap), but because on a friend’s recommendation, I picked up a book called The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma [1], by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. Dr. van der Kolk is one of the top specialists in his field. My friend, whose spouse suffers from a very serious autoimmune condition, said the book talks in part about the role of trauma in persistent autoimmune disorders (in which the body attacks itself), and suggested that I might learn something from the book.

I don’t have time to start it now, but I did find an October 2014 Krista Tippett interview with the psychiatrist. [2] In this excerpt, Dr. van der Kolk tells the radio host that most people take difficult experiences and place them in context of a story that helps them make sense of the event, and therefore to process it. But traumatized people don’t do that; for them, the story remains the same. It’s like they are stuck on it, and can’t move on. Excerpt:

MS. TIPPETT: And also, that gets at the fact that it’s not just cognitive, right? It’s not just a story that you could tell. I mean, it may eventually become a story, but that it’s body memory. It’s a neural net of memory. It’s not just about words that you can formulate.

DR. VAN DER KOLK: Yeah, yeah. It’s amazing to me what a hard time many people I know have with that. This is not about something you think or something you figure out. This is about your body, your organism, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe. And it has nothing to do with cognition, with, you know, you can say to people, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “You’re not a bad person” or “It wasn’t your fault.” And people say, “I know that, but I feel that it is.”

It was very striking in our yoga study because we see yoga as one important thing that helps people who’ve been traumatized because they get back into their bodies. How hard it was for people to even during the most blissful part of the yoga practice called Shavasana, what a hard time traumatized people had at that moment to just feel relaxed and safe and feel totally enveloped with goodness, how the sense of goodness and safety disappears out of your body basically.

It’s as if the memory of the awful event becomes incarnate, and part of our flesh. I’m not sure what this might have to do with my own situation, but I find the idea fascinating. I know a couple of people who had traumatic childhoods, and who still, much later in life, never quite feel safe and at ease anywhere.

Your thoughts? I’ll be back with you in a couple of hours.

41 Comments (Open | Close)

41 Comments To "The Physiological Echoes of Trauma"

#1 Comment By Silouan Green On March 27, 2015 @ 2:27 pm

Yes. Trauma can become the lens people see all life through. The longer it goes and the older we get, the harder it can become to realize we don’t have to be held hostage by a memory. Holding on to a memory and letting it have power over us is probably the primary road block to life for most if not all of the people I work with.

#2 Comment By Marie On March 27, 2015 @ 2:53 pm

How interesting. My husband’s business failed (ie crashed and burned) in 2012, the same year he was diagnosed with type 1.5 (or maybe extreme 2) diabetes at 29. He also was in a bad hit-and-run accident that year. We’re only now as a family really coming out of it.

#3 Comment By Connie On March 27, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

After a close friend had quite invasive surgery recently, he told me about some research he had done. Even though afterwards there was little residual pain and he healed well, and was under complete anesthesia during the surgery, the body remembers that it was violently cut into and frankly attacked.

#4 Comment By texasaggiemom On March 27, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

Rod–I know your therapist, priest and Dante helped you get through a lot of pain, but I have never believed that pain ever fully left you. And, since it’s such a big part of the book, you have been required to mention it multiple times a day on your blog, speak about it at book discussions and otherwise live with it closely. It’s no wonder, along with the stressful timeline, that your body is reverting. Hopefully, after the big book promotion push, you can move on to thinking and writing about other subjects and not have to revisit the sadness that prompted this book. That being said, I am looking forward to reading it, because I think a lot of us have various degrees of family “traumas” that have marked us in ways were weren’t aware. Good luck to you and your book and I will continue to pray for your healing.

[NFR: You may be right about that. One thing I can say for sure is that Before Dante (and the rest), I thought about this stuff all the time. All the time. The difference between now and then is enormous — which is why I’m so frustrated by this relapse. As I said recently in this space, it’s not so much that I’m struggling with the same stuff again as that I tried to run a marathon before my broken legs fully healed — and that now means it’s hard to walk to the mailbox. I know this too will pass, and as difficult as it is to deal with, I am so very, very grateful to Dante, my pastor, and my therapist for the fact that this is a breeze compared to what it was like before that healing. — RD]

#5 Comment By BlairBurton On March 27, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

PTSD is not confined to people who have survived horrific trauma such as 911 rescuers or military who have served in war zones or victims of violent crimes. Survivors of abusive family situations that have perhaps lasted for many years can experience symptoms long after the acute trauma has ended.

#6 Comment By James Bradshaw On March 27, 2015 @ 4:16 pm

I’ve never underestimated the power that emotional trauma can have on one’s physical health.

About a decade or so ago, I was standing next to my partner of 2-3 years when his doctor informed him over the phone that he had contracted HIV, and at that point I figured I had most likely been exposed as well due to his infidelity.

There is a window of time where the virus is not picked up in tests (up to 6 months). During those six months, I suffered panic attacks, a couple dozen pounds of weight loss and various other symptoms. Though the tests thankfully were (and are) negative, the trauma of both that betrayal and the fear of infection impacted me for several years.

I eventually was put on Paxil as a means of alleviating the panic attacks that continued even after my clear test results.

Psychologically, you may be aware that a threat no longer exists, but you sometimes can’t be help relive the moments of that trauma (even if it’s subconscious). You feel it in your bones.

#7 Comment By calreader On March 27, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

I do not doubt that stressful events have physical ramifications. A recent study reported that childhood maltreatment affected connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. However, Dr. Van der Kolk was a strong proponent of repressed memory syndrome in the 1990s, and I would be careful about his conclusions and recommendations.

[NFR: Interestingly, I read some in the book last night, and while he doesn’t advocate in it for something called “repressed memory syndrome,” he does mention cases in which patients of his who had undergone horrific sexual abuse had the specific memories surface uncontrollably after a certain amount of therapy. — RD]

#8 Comment By Astra On March 27, 2015 @ 4:50 pm

Hi Rod,

As someone who also has an auto-immune disorder (it really is the hot new illness of the 21st century), I wonder what causes you to look so hard for a source in your mental world rather than the physical one? I know they are linked and that stress can both cause and manifest itself in physiological effects, but sometimes it sounds like you think you can reason or talk yourself out of being ill. I’m not sure it’s so simple and may itself be a source of stress. I know I blame myself for feeling ill even though I know it’s illogical and it certainly doesn’t help.

#9 Comment By Charles Cosimano On March 27, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

The relationship between trauma and the immune system has been known for a long time. What is largely ignored is the fact that while we tend to think of trauma as a one-shot bang that totally destroys the self-image, it can, and usually is, a longer process where the difficulties of living just wear the person down to a nubbin.

Even the most idyllic childhood is an incredibly insecure time. Things that are not even remembered and would not be considered important if they were, leave a mark on the psyche.

#10 Comment By David J. White On March 27, 2015 @ 6:35 pm


My father passed away on New Year’s Eve, so I understand something of what you are going through, though in his case, despite some chronic conditions (diabetes, general muscle weakness, and a history of being a heart patient), he was apparently doing fairly well for his age (82) until the last couple of months.

I will keep your family in my prayers.

#11 Comment By Max Skinner On March 27, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

It doesn’t just work on people with auto immune disease. My 15 year old son was in a head on collision. He was a passenger and essentially walked away from the accident because of the seatbelt and airbag. The people in the opposing vehicle did not have such safety engineering and were badly injured. My son suffered a sort of PTSD from this even during a time when he didn’t remember the accident. A psychologist told him that even though his conscious memory didn’t recall it, his physical memory did. That’s why my son nearly had panic attacks when he perceived another car being too close, stopping suddenly, or even hitting a pot hole. He is better now and has been since he can recall the accident but he still tenses up when he’s a passenger.

I hope you get some rest, Rod, and I hope that you feel your father is in good medical hands. He certainly is in good familial hands.

#12 Comment By Ree On March 27, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

So sorry to hear that you (and your dad) are ailing, Rod. Hoping you see rapid improvement.

I had a traumatic childhood, due to domestic violence, and haven’t really considered that in the context of autoimmunity. More on that later.

10 years ago I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism–much to my surprise. I wasn’t looking for it. After I finished my Ph.D. dissertation I found myself frequently fatigued by minimal physical activity. Instead of running 3-5 miles (easily) I found myself winded just walking up 2-3 flights of stairs. I mentioned this to a doctor during a routine physical and, unbeknownst to me, as part of the routine bloodwork they did a TSH test. My TSH was between 14-15, which is very high. The physician never mentioned autoimmunity. Just put me on a thyroid hormone and I improved almost overnight.

I knew that I had Raynaud’s, thanks to a self-diagnosis a few years earlier when my fingers began to turn white under certain conditions (usually involving a combination of stress + cold). When I determined I was experiencing Raynaud’s I didn’t have health insurance so I never mentioned it to a doctor back then.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started to ask more questions about the hypothyroidism. A different physician tested for antibodies and confirmed that I had high levels and Hashimoto’s was confirmed.

Since I can’t accept the notion that we just develop these “incurable” autoimmune conditions for no reason, I started to focus on the environmental triggers. About 2 years ago I began to research the causes of Hashimoto’s and found a lot of correlations with various foods and toxins. That led me into the realm of functional and integrative medicine.

I already had a strong belief that real food is one of the 4 pillars of health, so I’ve tried to avoid most processed foods for years. I gave up fast food in 2003 and over the intervening years continued to eat fewer and fewer processed food items.

In May 2014 I was tested for food sensitivities and found sensitivities to a number of foods that I ate regularly (peanuts, eggs, cashews, wheat were among the “worst” for me).

Since then I’ve endeavored to avoid most of the foods that I tested sensitive to and have been almost 100% gluten and egg free since November (4 exceptions). I’ve avoided peanuts and cashews since last September. Other less intense allergens I’ve avoided for weeks at a time.

I’ve also undertaken a supplementation regimen that includes 5000 IU of Vitamin D3, Selenium and other supplements.

In about 2 weeks I’ll get re-tested again for antibodies to see if there’s any improvement on the cellular level. But I can say this: I definitely feel better. Still tired after a 12-hour day, but that’s probably just normal tiredness.

As I said early on, I had never considered the notion that our bodies remember stress from earlier times. I have no doubt that I had a physical reaction to the stress I experienced growing up and, at times, in confrontational situations during adulthood. I know that I did. Whenever I’m in a stressful situation I tend to NOT eat because my stomach is in knots or has “butterflies.” So I know there was a physical response but never thought about that in the context of triggering autoimmunity.

That said, a few years ago I also began to practice what might fall in the category of mindfulness or breathing meditation and/or walking meditation. At first, it was just offering a blessing on people and situations when I felt annoyed and stressed. Then, later, it began to include breathing and simply sitting and “being” in the moment. More recently, it’s evolved into a 15 minute interludes of silent breathing.

It’s all from a Christian perspective and very much grew out of an organic, intuitive sense of what I need to do to for healing.

I have no doubt that healing from autoimmunity (and cancer) is possible, even in today’s toxic world where we’re bombarded from all directions by chemicals and toxins that interact to cause problems for our bodies, even if each individual chemical or toxin is at what’s defined by the corporate maker as a “safe” level.

But the key to healing involves both spiritual AND physical elements. I think we must be proactive in avoiding the toxic triggers and proactive in seeking healing through rest, movement, prayer, stress reduction.

We can’t change the past or what we’ve experienced but we can accept it and move on, forgiving those who hurt us either intentionally or through irresponsibility or their own inability to cope with life’s challenges.

All this is a big ramble….but I hope that it might help someone to know that many are struggling with autoimmunity and improvement (if not full remission) is possible through a combination of dietary and lifestyle interventions.

#13 Comment By Scott nunn On March 27, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

When i was a young teenager i was often exposed to an abusive relationship involving my sister and her boyfriend. My sister watched me a lot and transported me to activities while my parents work. Most of it was the pain of seeing what my sister was going through but i also was subject to the boyfriends threats and bullying. Once he chased us across town trying to run us off the road. We finally had sense enough to drive to the police station and blow the hirn as he tried to break out the windows. That fear struck with me for a long long time, often in ways that were illogical.

#14 Comment By Neal On March 27, 2015 @ 7:41 pm


#15 Comment By Eliana On March 27, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

There are very likely some
connections between emotions and physical illness
in some people at some times.

But not enough is known about just how and when
and about how not and when not.

It has seemed to me that at times physical illness may possibly be a way of calling,
“Time out! I can’t take this
anymore right now!”, whatever “this” may be.

Illness can provide a reason to take time to slow down, to retreat, to be looked after, etc.

An interesting related question is whether a person who has undergone great stress by seeing a loved one very ill or by being very ill oneself may then in fact
acquire such a mental desire and determination to avoid illness and incapacitation that in fact one’s physical
ability to fight off disease is
actually strengthened.

If tough experiences can sometimes facilitate illness,
it seems reasonable to think that such experiences can also sometimes facilitate a
greater psychological/ physical resistance to illness.

If one is convinced that illness will not provide any real “time out”, but in fact will only mean much more stress
and restriction without any related
paychological compensations, then indeed it makes sense that the mind
& body would fight hard together to try to stay well.

But we only speculate, we don’t know, about how/ whether a mind may facilitate or deflect illness in any given case, and so it seems to me that we should always proceed with great caution in any such discussions.

#16 Comment By La Lubu On March 27, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

Yes—trauma can be retained by the body for a long time, and can create permanent changes in the psyche. It can even be [3].

#17 Comment By Public Defender On March 27, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

I see this pretty much every day. Repeated trauma (especially repeated childhood trauma) can short circuit the brain’s higher functions, keeping people in flight or fight mode much of the time. Seeing what my clients have done and have had done to them is sometimes almost more than I can handle with my strong family and professional support. But my clients and their victims have to deal with *living* the trauma, often with no real support.

I also don’t know how cops can deal with what they deal with without more of them going off the deep end. They live what I read and hear about.

Personally, I find that regular, vigorous exercise is essential to my sanity. So is having such a great group of colleagues. Also, I NEVER read or watch crime fiction or follow real crimes. I listened to about five minutes of Serial, even though I heard it was really, really good. You have to draw a line and step away from this job.

#18 Comment By Brad On March 27, 2015 @ 9:41 pm

Rod, you might check out The Wahls Protocol. Terry Wahls was an MD who developed MS. Was confined to a wheel chair after seven years. After major diet and lifestyle changes she now lectures, jogs and bikes. She has an 18 min video at TedTalk and a book explaining her diet. Test are being done with it for neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases.

#19 Comment By Chris On March 27, 2015 @ 9:47 pm

As a therapist, let me chime in with my perspective. Mental health professionals divide trauma into two broad categories: simple trauma and complex trauma. Simple trauma is usually the result of a single event. This could be a rate, witnessing a murder, a work accident , etc. Complex trauma is the result of extensive traumatic experiences such as long-term sexual abuse, spousal abuse, parental abuse, etc. Simple trauma is easier to treat because the event was time-limited. Complex trauma is much more difficult to treat, and it manifests itself in a much greater number of behavioral and emotional difficulties.

Your quotes from the interview with the psychiatrist were spot on. In the treatment of trauma, it is essential that the trauma victim have the opportunity to construct a narrative within which they can make sense of their experiences. For many years, therapists were concerned that allowing trauma victims to mentally their feelings might result in re-traumatization. However, clinical experience indicates that this rarely occurs., Trauma victims have a need to tell their story. In fact, in my experience, the patients I have treated frequently begin therapy by essentially flooding the therapy sessions with an enormous amount of information and emotion. Indeed, this occurs to such a degree as a therapist one can feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and powerful emotions that become evident during trauma therapy. Sometimes, it is necessary to assist the client to modulate and manage the degree to which they pour out their trauma history.

The difficult thing about trauma is that it is impossible to escape. Human beings have a natural desire to run from pain, anguish, and heartache. This natural human tendency unfortunately will only act to exacerbate the damage. In some psychotherapy models. This is known as “experiential avoidance” and is often see quite naturally n in trauma victims. Persons who have experienced trauma will frequently do everything possible to numb the pain through drugs, alcohol, repression, denial, becoming a workaholic etc.

Unfortunately, this attempt to disconnect from one’s trauma is never successful. What trauma victims can expect in treatment is not to erase their traumatic experiences, but rather learn to understand and relate them in a different way. Frequently people who have experienced trauma on to find some magic button that can be pushed which will erase all memory of the traumatic experience. This magic button does not exist. The task for people who wish to recover from trauma is defined way to reignite the narrative of their lives in such a way that the trauma no longer dominates them. In psychotherapy for trauma, sensitivity to religious values and meaning are absolutely essential. We have a human need to find some sense of meaning and purpose within which to place our negative life experiences. With trauma we experience an existential anxiety which is itself frequently overwhelming.

One of the unfortunate facts about trauma is that it develops a life of its own. We know from neurophysiological studies that trauma victims experience a feedback loop in brain areas involving the frontal lobes, the limbic system, and the hippocampus. This means that memories, emotions, and our expectations and continually replaying the traumatic memories and related feelings which become somewhat independent. In a sense that aspect of our life experience becomes like a rogue computer virus inhabiting and haunting our central nervous system and being replayed over and over and over again in mind and memory. Certainly this occurs in cases of flashback as in posttraumatic stress disorder.

However, neural feedback loops can manifest themselves in a large number of other less-dramatic ways which are more insidious and more subtle. This can include immune dysfunction. We have known for approximately 20 years and directed neurological links occurred between the central nervous system and the immune system.. It can also manifest itself in individuals essentially replaying their trauma over and over again in a variety of unconscious ways. For example, a person who drifts from one abusive relationship to the other may be re-experiencing and reliving aspects of their trauma. In working with Vietnam veterans, I discovered that many of them desperately wish to become the person they would have been had with the traumatic events never occurred. However, they will ironically spend time reliving and replaying aspects of the trauma that have some protective and symbolic value. For example, they will wear camouflage, collect weapons, move to an isolated part of the country, put up fences and barb wire around their homes, and regularly scan the perimeter of their property for rent. These were precisely the same behaviors that occur in Vietnam during combat. And since he continue to engage in those same behaviors because they have some seemingly protective element to them long after their combat experience is finished.

I would vebture ti say Rod that your endless blogging about “the coming darkness,” the culture wars, gay marriage and homosexuality more generally, economic apocalypse, peak oil, moral collapse etc … is not based on anything remotely resembling reality, but are distorted and false perceptions of the world rooted in your own psychological history.

#20 Comment By Aegis On March 27, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

I am tremendously sorry to hear about the relapse of your illness, but I can’t help but wonder whether you have thought about this in light of your recent snarkiness about triggering and the like.

If psychological stress brings on physical illness in you, why do you find it so risible that it might cause significant problems for others?

#21 Comment By PaulPfaff On March 27, 2015 @ 10:01 pm

Van der Kolk is a great resource for trauma healing. For more about the somatic experiencing of trauma and ways to heal, I’d recommend the works of Peter Levine and Babette Rothschild. He wrote “Waking the Tiger”, a fascinating book about how animals deal with trauma by using their bodies. The term “shake it off” has new meaning after seeing his workshop.

She wrote “The Body Remembers”. It is guide for therapists treating people with trauma, and is very accessible. Great self-awareness and self-care tips in there, and great explanations of how and why the body stores trauma not as episodic memory but in other ways, especially physiological.

Helping people get “out of their head” is one of the biggest challenges of treating people with trauma who are intellects and academics. Listening to one’s body is crucial in recovering from any trauma.

#22 Comment By Ermenegildo On March 28, 2015 @ 12:22 am

Long-time frequent reader here. Christian and also practitioner of Zen. Just a thought: Perhaps a little looking into Zen may be worthwhile? Definite category shift therein, or at least a vision of it. Sitting, breathing, connecting with the corpus. Posture. Shunryu Suzuki “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” quite brilliant. Also Rob Preece “The Wisdom of Imperfection.” Well — maybe.

#23 Comment By brians On March 28, 2015 @ 8:48 am

I’ve found the that the best strategy is bottling it up and refusing to discuss it.

#24 Comment By D.P. Smith On March 28, 2015 @ 8:49 am

It’s exciting that we can learn from animals in treating trauma. But I keep thinking of Thumper, a rescued dog who obviously endured major trauma. After years of coddling, he still carries his past in his body. Sounds blow him out of the water. His meekness is pure fear. Is it because he is domesticated that he hasn’t shaken off his traumatic past? I think there can be little doubt that our bodies carry our traumas and also that language treatments are lacking. Remember the lady who developed systems to keep cattle calm on the way to slaughter? And applied some of her findings to her life? Thanks to all who post about this. I came from childhood with frozen feelings. When I was in my late teens a friend handed me a left handed cigarette and suddenly I found I had a body with sensation–and suddenly things like sex made sense. The drug did not make me high; it made me normal.

#25 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On March 28, 2015 @ 11:09 am

The comments on this thread are fantastic, and really helpful. I have some of the persistent trauma symptoms that stem from some childhood neglect due to a severely depressed parent, and these still manifest themselves in anxiety and desires to self mutilate–which is what I did when I was a teenager into my 20s. Becoming Orthodox which has greater bodily/spiritual awareness, years of really good therapy, and Zoloft are all helpful, but stress can really bring it all back. Much less so than in the past, thank God. I’m about to send this post to everybody in my family.

#26 Comment By elizabeth On March 28, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

We don’t simply have the experience and create a story about it. We tell ourselves stories about the world that affirm the reaction to the experience.

My husband had his life saved, but his sternum broken, by an airbag that deployed when a truck swung a left turn in front of him on a highway in late December. He was only in the hospital for two days and was up and about, though not much and moving slowly, as soon as he came home.

Within days of his return home, I developed chest pains during emotional stress – even reading this blog – and my regular brisk walks. My doctor says this is common, and a friend confirms that in the year following his heart attack, his wife was in the ER with chest pains many times, though she was perfectly healthy.

Since my husband’s accident, I am more likely to be seized with hopelessness – not about religious persecution and sin, which is our host’s favored narrative – but about the environmental destruction that has occurred in my lifetime. Memories of childhood romps in nature no longer bring joy, they bring a sense of loss and deep anxiety about my son and any children he will produce.

Fortunately, I’ve been practicing meditation and studying Buddhadhamma for the past dozen years, so have a way to see the reactions quickly and interrupt their impact. That probably reduces the likelihood that the current processes will forge a new neural pathway of trauma, which outcome I experienced that in the past, thanks to a lifetime of dealing with a mentally ill, personality disordered mother.

It doesn’t matter how much you think you know about your situation, the body responds in its own way. “Waking” by Matthew Sanford, also gives great insight into the topic.

#27 Comment By Tofudog On March 28, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

I am not familiar van der Kolk, but the medical world is starting to be more accepting of these ideas. The CDC has done a great study looking at trauma and how it impacts long term health called “Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACE for short. They studied over 17,000 adults who were mostly white, middle class, employed with health insurance (in other words not necessarily a high risk population singled out for psychological studies). The higher the ACE score, the higher the correlation to heart disease, cancer, etc… not just higher correlation to things you’d expect like mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence etc…

You can calculate your ACE score yourself here: [4]

Also, the field I work in, child abuse and prevention, has started using the language of “trauma based care”, assuming that the origins of a lot of “bad” behavior has its origins in trauma.

#28 Comment By k On March 28, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

I’ve had a relapsing/remitting autoimmune disease (among other things) and I think a spiritual way to look at relapses is that, while you do hope for healing and improvement over time, a relapse is not necessarily a “setback” or that you have lost anything, but God taking you into another level. Nothing can take away from you what insights and life improvement you found coming out of illness and into the last remission – and now when another attack comes on, it’s an opportunity to go deeper, or to address another aspect of health and life, or whatever.

#29 Comment By Joan On March 28, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

As a child of traumatized parents who never really dealt with their trauma, I want to say that kids do know when a parent is suffering, that they do worry, and that attempting to hide your suffering from them won’t keep them from worrying. They’ll just learn to hide the worrying from you, putting another layer of mistrust between the generations, and they may come up with stories of their own to explain what’s going on to themselves, and their stories may be worse than the truth. So tell them the truth, allowing for their ages and states of mind. Let them know that everything that can be done, is being done. And make sure they have someone they can talk to about their experience of your suffering, someone who has enough distance not to be too impacted by your situation themselves.

#30 Comment By AubreyMaturin On March 28, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

It’s fascinating how the mind-body problem remains so vitally relevant in real life. Information sensed by the brain can change the body physically. It just amazes me. (sorry if I sound like a college sophomore).

I hope you get well soon Rod. I know it’s not particularly profound or filled with any sublimating mystery, but its worthwile paying attention to eating, exercise, and sleep. Hard to do that right, though, when your life lacks routine, as it sounds like your hectic personal and professional life requires.

#31 Comment By AubreyMaturin On March 28, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

Good article about Van der Kolk’s work on PTSD. This section near the front was incredible:

People turn to grease when they explode, he told us, because their fat cells burst open. He witnessed multiple suicide bombings. Once, he accidentally stepped in an exploded corpse; only the legs were still recognizable as human. Another time, he saw a kitchen full of women sliced to bits. They’d been making couscous when a bomb went off and the windows shattered. He was shot in the back of the head once. He was also injured by an improvised explosive device.

But none of those experiences haunted him quite as much as this one: Several months into his tour, while on a security detail, Eugene killed an innocent man and then watched as the man’s mother discovered the body a short while later.

“Tell us more about that,” van der Kolk said. “What happened?” Eugene’s fragile composure broke at the question. He closed his eyes, covered his face and sobbed.


#32 Comment By Another Matt On March 28, 2015 @ 4:27 pm

Well, of course this resonates with me. My experience is very similar to Ree’s above, except my Hashimoto’s nadir happened in the middle of trying to write my dissertation (which I should be finishing this week!). I had a very chaotic childhood, by my Hashimoto’s is genetic — pretty much everyone on my mom’s side has it, and my brother was just diagnosed as well.

The chaotic childhood manifests in other ways, though. I definitely display it in a destructive perfectionism and aloofness. Detaching and trying to find something I could have complete control over were both necessary for sanity. I suppose this is one reason why music was such a good fit. But a weird thing that happens is that any time I do something completely normal that I got in huge trouble for as a kid I still have this urge to look behind my back or second guess my actions. The best example of this is coffee drinking: I developed a very intimate relationship with coffee as I was trying to cope with hypothyroidism, but when I was a kid coffee drinking was an adults only activity, and if I tried to sneak a sip it could ruin an entire day for the whole family. I still feel this automatic pang of “NO! this is for grownups!” when I have my first sip in the morning.

I decided to see a psychiatrist at the worst part of my hypothyroidism, wondering why I had become emotionally numb, anxious all the time, and why I couldn’t concentrate or think clearly. The first thing she did was order a full blood panel with thyroid testing, and an antidepressant prescription. The latter paid some immediate dividends — I still suffered brain fog, depression, and some anxiety, but it kind of smoothed the roller coaster and cut off some of the worst cycles of self-hatred. My GP wouldn’t treat the hypothyroidism for another year, though, because she didn’t think it was bad enough. I should have switched to another doctor then, but I had barely enough confidence to get to the doctor in the first place. Anyway, once I started Synthroid, I got a lot of my abilities back.

There are a couple of lessons I learned about autoimmune diseases (or anything physically draining) and depression. First, medicine has the potential to help keep a floor underneath you, and I’d recommend considering it. Second, when you recover, you realize how many unconscious bad habits you developed to cope with the problem. It’s taken me a very long time to unlearn some of that, and I’m not there yet. It almost always makes things worse to get frustrated with lack of progress, and so it’s very good to be able to let yourself be less than perfect for a while. It takes time.

#33 Comment By elizabeth On March 28, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

Ree: I’m glad you are feeling better, but diet is no cure-all. I have eaten natural, organic foods and drunk pure water and took a few vitamins my entire adult life. Working in the natural food industry, I was exposed to every diet theory that came along for three decades and tried out many of them.

Yet I too developed Hashimoto’s disease, am symptomatic with a TSH of 1.0, and was very ill even with a low antibody count. Test results don’t always reflect the experience of an illness. Gluten-free made no impact. The only thing that does is the proper dose of Synthroid. That path is no guarantee.

#34 Comment By Maxine On March 29, 2015 @ 12:55 am

Aegis asks: “If psychological stress brings on physical illness in you, why do you find it so risible that it might cause significant problems for others?”

This is such a good, honest, and relevant question, and I wish you would answer it, Rod.

[NFR: I do believe it can, and does. I believe that so-called “trigger warning” culture is mostly about controlling discourse by pathologizing free speech. I believe in reasonable accommodations for those who have been genuinely traumatized, but I think what’s happening in most of these campus cases we hear about have nothing to do with real trauma. It’s turning collective neurosis into therapy. — RD]

#35 Comment By Gary On March 29, 2015 @ 11:55 am

Human beings are comprised of three components, body, mind and spirit. When any one of these components are compromised, the other is affected. If you are physically ill, you can easily be mentally negative. If you are mentally ill, your spiritual life may have a darker outlook than other wise. Treating ourselves from one or two of components and all three will keep us in an endless cycle of illness. Treating our whole self brings us in greater harmony and lessens the occurrence and effect of illness at times, dramatically. One other aspect of illness that bears paying attention to is who we associate ourselves with. Are we spending time with positive, high valued people, or are we spending time with people who are resentful, bitter, selfish? We should not underestimate the effect others have on us. Taking appropriate action to eliminate negativity from our life goes along way to better overall health in all three components. For me, it all starts and ends with God. When my relationship with Him is firm, then all else tends to fall in place.

#36 Comment By FL Transplant On March 29, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

I think what you’re going through with your Dad is one of the most stressful things there is. Don’t think that because there’s little physical demands on your part that it isn’t incredibly hard and demanding of you.

Ive been going through the same thing with my Dad for the past year. My situation is similar to yours–moved back to where they lived a few years ago to be around to help. I’ve had to assume full responsibility for his well-being; luckily he prepared well and I have full legal authority/ability (durable and medical POAs). Nonetheless, assuming responsibility for him has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I say that as a graduate of one of our military academies from the years before “kinder and gentler” who spend a career in the military.

I wish I could give you some wisdom from my experience beyond the typical I’m sure you’ve gotten as a matter of course (eat healthy, exercise, don’t forget to take time for yourself, enjoy your family, do what you do for your Dad as an act of love and not as an unwelcome burdensome responsibility, embrace the suck) but I can’t–I don’t have anything beyond that to offer. What you’re doing in incredibly hard, has always been, and will always be.

#37 Comment By AnotherBeliever On March 29, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

My take is rather pragmatic. There are sometimes things physically wrong with a person, and sometimes it’s chronic. Physical ailments can take as much spiritual or psychological toll as the other way around. More, if you ask me. Sometimes spiritual and psychological work will only get you to a sense of balance and equanimity about these things. This is not to be discounted, we are pretty good at piling dysfunction on top of whatever ails us. But it’s also no cure.

#38 Comment By Jen On March 29, 2015 @ 6:47 pm

I came across this interesting NYT article, more about mental than physical health, about how the way we shape our narratives affects our trajectory in life.


I guess as someone with an abusive childhood and a tendency toward depression, I found it interesting. Maybe others will, too.

#39 Comment By Grumpy realist On March 29, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

Rod–and i say this sincerely, pray to God. Immerse yourself in Orthodox rituals. Immerse yourself in the love of your family. Get a puppy. Listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor or his Passions. Listen to the Mozart Requiem, or whatever other music you find joyful and awe-inspiring. Go and just sit by your father and communicate, silently. And HANG ON. Some of the wisest words ever said in the Bible: “This too shall pass.”

#40 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On March 30, 2015 @ 11:52 am

Very interesting post! Krista Tippett does a radio show called “On Being” where she talks about faith and interviews spiritual people – maybe a little too new age-y for you, but I like it.

[NFR: I like the show too, and in fact have in the past been a guest on it. — RD]

#41 Comment By Another Matt On March 30, 2015 @ 7:12 pm

I second grumpy realist’s suggestion that you immerse yourself in music. Don’t just sit passively, but listen with intent. You don’t have to listen for the music’s message — you can get a lot out of attending to just one thing at a time, like the pianist in your favorite jazz, or just the flute part in a Beethoven symphony. I’m still putting together a “great music that saved my life” post, but it may have to wait for some things to pass over before I can finish it.