woman in pain

The Connection Between Stress, Trauma and Autoimmune Diseases

A recent study finds that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be at a higher risk for developing autoimmune diseases. This study supports a growing body of research that suggests a link exists between trauma and physical health. 

At this time, the available research does not indicate that stress causes autoimmune diseases, but rather that it raises the likelihood of developing one. Additional research is needed to show causation. 

If you or a loved one has both past trauma and an autoimmune condition like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, you may be wondering if your traumatic experience is the cause. This is an important relationship to examine, as it could allow us to treat underlying trauma and prevent autoimmune diseases in the future. 

Let’s learn more about PTSD and autoimmune disease, the link between the two and effective strategies for treating both issues. 

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? 

PTSD is a disorder that causes people to have trouble recovering from a traumatic event or experience. The condition can last for months or years, with symptoms like nightmares, unwanted memories and avoidance of certain situations. The triggers can bring back memories that feel as real as the day the trauma occurred. 

What’s interesting about trauma is that it is unique to the individual. For example, one person may perceive an event as traumatic while another person does not. Examples of traumatic experiences are: 

  • Serious accidents
  • Natural disasters 
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • War or combat 
  • Abuse or neglect 
  • Witnesses a traumatic event 
  • Life-threatening illnesses 

While there are many effective ways to treat PTSD, including psychotherapy and medications, not everyone receives this type of care. Instead, they may self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, putting themselves at risk for addiction. Unfortunately, abusing substances only temporarily dulls the pain. 

What are Autoimmune Diseases? 

An autoimmune disorder is a condition where the body attacks healthy cells. Normally, your body can tell the difference between your cells and foregin cells. This is why when you get sick, your body sends off an alarm to kill the bacteria. With an autoimmune disease, the immune system sees your body as a threat and releases antibodies to attack healthy cells. 

Because there is a high increase in autoimmune cases, scientists are trying to learn more about these diseases and why they happen to some people. At this time, they suspect the causes are environmental and include infections and exposure to certain chemicals. It has also been theorized that the high-fat, high-sugar Western diet is to blame because it causes inflammation in the body, setting off an immune response. 

Common autoimmune diseases include: 

  • Type 1 diabetes 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Psoriasis 
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease 
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis 
  • Graves’ disease 

woman with headache

The Connection Between Trauma and Autoimmune Diseases 

Between the research we have available to us, and the clients we treat at Awakenings, it’s clear that there is a relationship between stress and the physical body. It’s not exactly clear why this is the case, but it’s certainly understandable. After all, the mind and body is “one” and not separate from each other. This is why people receiving treatment for substance abuse, mental illness, eating disorders and others do best with a holistic approach. 

Here are some reasons why researchers believe underlying trauma and autoimmune diseases have such a strong connection: 

  • Biological changes. In people with PTSD, biological changes take place in the body. These changes increase inflammation, activate certain genes and accelerate the release of immune cells. 
  • Leaky gut. The gut stores a vast microbiome of bacteria, viruses, pathogens and fungi that interact with the brain. When these organisms are no longer in balance, they can cause problems for the body, including leaky gut syndrome. As toxins enter the bloodstream, it sets off an immune response.
  • Increased cortisol. The immune system is sensitive to stress. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and it has a lot of control over the immune system. When going through periods of stress, the body releases more cortisol, leading to inflammation and immune system impairment. 
  • Systemic inflammation. Stress impairs some types of immunity and activates others. Unfortunately, when it does activate immunity, it tends to raise systemic inflammation. This can be a big problem for people who are already prone to autoimmune diseases. 

Is There a Way to Prevent Stress Damage? 

Because research is limited at this time, it’s difficult to say what pathways associated with stress can lead to the onset of autoimmune diseases. This makes it difficult to fix damage caused by stress. It’s possible that treating stress at its source can prevent an autoimmune disease from developing, but we don’t know for sure. 

Nevertheless, we do know that stress takes a toll on the body. Therefore, preventing stress damage is important. By doing this, we may lower the risk for autoimmune diseases while also preventing complications like PTSD, anxiety, loneliness and substance abuse. 

Here are some of the best ways to prevent a traumatic experience from affecting the body:

  • Get moving. Exercise releases feel-good endorphins, burns off adrenaline and keeps the body healthy. It can also clear the mind and give you a healthier perspective on your stress. 30 minutes a day is ideal, and you can break it up into three 10-minute spurts.
  • Connect with others. Find ways to stay connected to others. You can spend time with friends and family or join a support group for trauma survivors. Volunteering is also a great way to fight feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. 
  • Self-regulate your nervous system. It's possible to change your arousal system and calm yourself down. This will help with anxiety, and give you a greater sense of control over your reactions. Ways to do this include meditation, mindful breathing and sensory input. 
  • Maintain your health. When stress builds up, it’s especially important to maintain good health. Get plenty of sleep, eat a well-balanced diet and avoid drugs and alcohol. Also, manage stress levels using techniques like yoga or deep breathing. 

When to Seek Professional Therapy for Trauma 

Recovering from trauma takes time. It’s a process - not a single event. But, if months have passed and you’re not seeing an improvement, you may benefit from professional therapy. There is no shame in getting help. In fact, people continue with therapy for many years to manage stress, develop new coping techniques and keep a clear conscience. 

There isn’t just one type of therapy that treats trauma but many. We find that trauma survivors respond well to somatic experiencing, cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). While there are differences between these therapies, the goal is to resolve unpleasant feelings and memories, expel bottled up fight-or-flight energy, regulate emotions and rebuild the ability to trust others. 

talk therapy session

Why it’s Important to Avoid Drugs and Alcohol 

Struggling with ongoing stress, underlying trauma or full-blown PTSD can take a toll on a person. This is why there are such high rates of substance abuse among people with PTSD and other mental health conditions. 

However, it’s very important that people with unresolved trauma avoid self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. By abusing these substances, it's possible to worsen symptoms, develop an addiction and overdose, particularly when combining medications. 

Plus, drugs and alcohol only temporarily numb the pain. This puts people further away from healing, as they’re avoiding unpleasant feelings and memories. But, as we know, trauma lives in the body, so it’s far more effective to process it and release it then keep it buried under drugs and alcohol. 

Seek Healing for Trauma, Stress, Mental Illness and Substance Abuse at Awakenings 

Awakenings offers personalized treatment solutions on an outpatient basis. We treat trauma, mental illness and substance abuse in all its forms. We treat all clients holistically, meaning that we heal the mind, body and spirit. Not only do we offer the traditional individual and group therapies, but also we provide: 

  • Neurofeedback
  • Peripheral biofeedback 
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Interpersonal process group therapy 
  • Experiential trauma resolution
  • Hemi-sync and alpha-stim
  • Art therapy 
  • 12-step groups 
  • Holistic healing practices (yoga, massage, chiropractic care) 

If you or a loved one is struggling with trauma, stress and/or substance abuse, contact Awakenings today. We can set up a treatment regimen that addresses your unique needs. The sooner you receive treatment, the quicker you can go back to feeling like yourself!