How early trauma affects the gut and your physical health
Virtually every client I see in my practice who has experienced emotional or physical trauma, and in particular early trauma, is affected via their nervous system with symptoms such as insomnia, chronic tension, depressive or highly anxious disposition, nightmares or chronic shame. However, many clients I see also have a range of physical issues as a result of trauma. More so, when there is complex trauma involved. Complex trauma can often fly under the radar, as clients might only have vague memories of their earlier childhood. There is also the misunderstanding, that trauma is only present when there have been significant shock events, such as accidents, sexual abuse or physical assault. However modern trauma experts know that “… the most severe dysregulation occurred in people who, as children, lacked a consistent caregiver. Emotional abuse, loss of caregivers, inconsistency, and chronic misattunement showed up as the principal contributors to a large variety of psychiatric problems” (Stephen Porges, PhD). Few people know about the wide ranging effects of complex trauma, which often results in challenges with trust, toxic shame, self-esteem, identity and regulating emotions as an adult – as well as chronic gut dysfunction and a hyper-aroused and overactive nervous system. This in turn can lead to other serious health conditions such as autoimmune disorders or chronic fatigue syndrome.
Trauma significantly affects the gut, which is easy to understand when you think about how the emotion of shock or fear feels in your gut. This, for a person with complex trauma often is their permanent state, although for some people complex trauma results in an inability to feel what is going on with their bodies. Have you have ever heard of the term “rest and digest”? Yes, this is the natural state of your nervous system – which in turn regulates the function of your gut. Have a guess how much time your body actually spends in that state - with the busy and often rushed lives we are leading now. For a child who does not have consistent, safe and nurturing relationships with their caregivers the answer would be: hardly any. Chronic stress in adulthood also wears down your nervous system and has wide-ranging consequences for your health; however if your troubles started in childhood you are extra vulnerable. I believe this is why I see many clients who suffer from chronic anxiety and depression, that also have long standing gut related disorders, such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), gut dysbiosis, allergies and other autoimmune disorders, indigestion, GERD (heartburn), leaky gut, chronic inflammation, yeast overgrowth and other gut related conditions.
Our digestive system is connected to our brains, and many other bodily systems, such as hormonal systems and therefore moods, on multiple levels. Understanding the nuances of that relationship and what can go wrong, is the forefront of neuroscience right now. If you're someone who has experienced early adverse childhood events, and your gut refuses to behave itself, let me assure you – there is a connection. From your microbiome to your enteric brain, trauma can make your gut go absolutely wild.
Issues get exacerbated, when coping mechanisms for heightened anxiety or stress involve eating as a way to calm or reward the self from childhood onward, in place of parental care, or when there are other eating disorders or sleep irregularities.
This is a double whammy, because research suggests that when the gut brain is out of balance, weight gain, inflammation (inflammatory reflex), and diseases of the digestive system also affect our mood and outlook on life negatively.
How can someone with systemic gut dysfunction and emotional control issues, which result in compulsive eating, and increasingly low confidence, toxic shame and low moods break out of this vicious cycle and re-balance their health? For a permanent change and a successful healing journey these ingredients are decisive: A basic awareness of how certain foods, such as sugar, as well as unconscious habits and thought patterns are fuel to this vicious cycle; an openness to change – and a commitment to healing yourself. This means overcoming the complex interrelated challenges of your mental-emotional and physiological conditions, to learn new emotional regulation techniques, new behaviours, and eat new foods.
A condition that has developed over years or even decades, and a systemic gut dysfunction along with long standing anxiety issues are not going to be healed by any kind of quick fix or magic potion. Patience, commitment and openness to change are the cornerstones of beginning to heal your gut; your nervous system and your life. A therapist can guide and support you when you are ready to change. Hypnotherapy is a highly effective modality for personal change. Reach out if you like to learn how I can work with you to re-set your nervous system and learn to relax, when you have been suffering from anxiety, depression or trauma.