How does a mind body disorder (MBD) and chronic pain (TMS) relate to trauma? According to Dr. Gabor Mate, who is a world leading expert on trauma recovery, all of the diagnoses that we get dealt with – depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar illness, PTSD, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, fatigue, migraines, back pain, POTS, including organ failure etc. are significantly rooted in trauma. They are manifestations of trauma. Therefore, a medical diagnoses often can’t explain why the condition has come about to begin with. Often it gets blamed on genetics or bad luck. The problem in the medical world is that the focus is on a diagnosis. A person receives a diagnoses and then we think that that is the explanation. We rarely get asked questions about our childhood experiences, our belief systems, our long term environmental and emotional stressors, including the expectations we place on ourselves and the roles we play (unconsciously and subconsciously). When in fact, everything that happens in the body is a process within the individual. Meaning that our bodies hold memories. The body keeps score.
If we look at the important systems in the body, they are completely connected. The endocrine system, which is made up of all the body’s different hormones, regulates all biological processes in the body from conception through adulthood and into old age; the development of the brain and nervous system, the growth and function of the reproductive system, as well as the metabolism and blood sugar levels. The endocrine system works in large part by acting on neurons in the brain, which controls the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland emits factors into the blood that act on the endocrine glands to either increase or decrease hormone production.
According to Dr. Mate, the truth is that our bodies hold memories. What happens in our childhood contributes towards who we think we are. Who we think we are contributes towards patterns of behaviour which lead to ill health. Why? Because mind and body are not separable. If you look at the important systems in the body, they are completely connected. The emotional centers in the brain are connected to the immune system, the hormonal apparatus and the nervous system. This system is highly survival focused. As babies, our biggest need, which is a need even greater than food is our attachment to our caretaker. This is how we are wired. Without that attachment we don’t survive. We are wired to attach. A big part of our brain is dedicated to maintaining our attachment needs and since this part of our brain is connected to our nervous system, we experience “warning signals” in the form of anxiety, panic attacks or physical pain and discomfort, when our attachment and survival needs are not being met or in danger. This is when we get stressed. All of this influences our immunity and hormonal apparatus. There is a constant neurological communication that’s going through our system every second of the day. The body communicates to the mind and the mind communicates to the body.
The experiences that happen in our childhood contribute towards who we think we are; a false sense of Self that we develop. Who we think we are contributes towards unhelpful patterns of behavior (including thoughts and belief systems) which lead to ill health. Why? Again, because mind and body are not separable.
Gordon Neufeld is a developmental psychologist and author of the book Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More. According to him the following are some of the consequences of what happens to us due to trauma and emotionally unavailable parenting:
- If you didn’t get the approval you needed, you’ll be consumed with winning approval and having a winning personality.
- If you were not valued for who you are, you’ll be craving to measure up to people’s expectations so they can value you.
- If you weren’t made to feel special you might become very demanding and place high expectations on yourself and others.
- If you weren’t esteemed for exactly who you were, you’ll want to impress people.
- If your importance as an individual wasn’t valued, you might end up in the helping professions, by helping people and feeling needed all the time. That’ll give you a sense of importance.
- If you weren’t liked for who you were, you’ll become a people pleaser. You will be liked by being nice, and suppress many of your authentic features.
- If you weren’t loved you may develop a charming and seductive personality.
- If you weren’t recognized for who you were, you might be concerned with seeking status.
Personally, as a child I quickly came to learn that in order to be loved, I couldn’t be my authentic self. It wasn’t okay for me to cry when I felt tired, stressed or frightened. It wasn’t safe for me to say “no” whenever it was a natural response to maintaining my boundaries. My passions and interests weren’t celebrated and respected. My thoughts and beliefs were often quickly put down or pushed aside. In turn, I developed a sense of Self (a personality) that was very much based on being pleasing, being perfect, being good, being likable and being responsible. I grew up struggling with a deep seated fear of inferiority, difficulty implementing healthy boundaries in both my personal and professional life. I incorporated a black and white mentality. I developed rigid rules as a way to feel in control. I compared myself to everyone around me and felt that the only way I would ever be worthy and appreciated was if I excelled at everything I did. I carried a strong sense of responsibility for other people’s feelings and believed that nothing I did was ever enough nor good enough. All of these traits are typical TMS personality traits. In turn from the age of sixteen, I started to experience the following TMS and mind body related issues: Anxiety, Bulimia, Depression, chronic back pain, chronic IBS, TMJ, Tinnitus, chronic hip pain, chronic neck pain, chronic acid reflux issues, work addiction, obsession with food, alcohol addiction, chronic stress, ongoing sciatica pain. I was also diagnosed with Graves disease.
Health comes out of mind; therefore, we have to look at the relationship between the mind and the body. We are only subject to what we hold in mind. The illness is coming out of a program, a belief system, with little memory of where that came from. Very few people remember what happened before the age of 5 which is why I believe counseling and psychotherapy to be an important component to trauma and TMS recovery. Until we become conscious of our limiting programs and beliefs and cancel them out, they will remain operative within the unconscious. In order to become conscious, we must do everything we can to increase our conscious awareness in our everyday life. We must also learn to how to regulate our nervous system, starting with simply noticing our breathing and the sensations in our body to the constant aliveness that is all around us; a bird chirping, the sound of traffic, a dog barking, the sound of our child or pet’s breathing. As we increase our conscious awareness, awareness into our unconscious mind increases. This often happens through pain and discomfort. As strange as this may sound, we want this. Pain has a way of helping us dive deeper and explore the origins of our beliefs. Just the knowledge that you are programmable can help bring about a therapeutic impact on your health. Ask yourself “how have I been programmed by my society, my culture and my family members?”
Illness often stems from a state of dis-ease which merely comes up to be healed. It brings up a lesson. The illness is basically saying “look at me! Please heal what I stand for. Please heal your guiltiness, your self-hatred and limiting thought forms. Please heal your lack of worthiness or enough-ness.” The illness is a demand for growth, to a new sense of Self. It is an opportunity which often reveals that something is out of alignment with our truth and authenticity.
Alongside, rewiring our nervous system and stress response, I believe that there are two other important factors to healing; building a newfound sense of self that is based on originality (beyond your conditioning) and the ability to acknowledge and feel your emotions fully without guilt nor shame about your sense of “badness”. Trauma only remains unhealed within us when we continue to hold on to the belief systems and personality traits, which were developed and imposed upon us as a way to survive our environment. Personality isn’t permanent, nor our trauma wounds and TMS symptoms.
Sarah is a Psychotherapist, Mental Health Social Worker, Art Therapist, Artist and Writer. She is also the Practice Manager at Mental Awakening.