This is a concept we all intuitively hold. We know that a past devastating loss, a humiliation that plays over and over in your mind, a sudden shock of an accident or trauma, a scary event that we were not prepared for, an ongoing threat to our safety or future, anything that has happened in our life that overwhelmed our capacity to cope or felt like it was inescapable can change how we think and view our life and the world. We all know people that we say, " oh she never really got over that [diffculity]", or "he's never been quite the same since [that] happened". Most people think you need a diagnosis of PSTD (which is very difficult to qualify for under the present criteria) is the only way to define those that have never been well since a difficult event.
But the reality is that you don't have to have PSTD to have suffered a difficulty in the past and have it directly affect your life and health NOW...in this present day. You don't have to be jobless, homeless, or unable to function in daily life to live out the affects of a past trauma in your body as a physical or mental illness. In fact, ACEs opened thousand's of people eyes (including mine) that even seemingly "normal" looking and acting, average, middle/upper class people can have suffered traumatic events in their childhood and then have a drastically increased incidence of physical illness in adulthood. That study linked the inkling that so many of us have had ... what happens to you in your life (especially developing as a child) matters.
The effects of this stress are not just because not just in your head.
The effects of trauma and long term chronic stress, do not just affect you mentally as sadness, anger, low self-esteem, etc... they translate into your physical body and can fuel disease.
(for an excellent talk about ACE's ...listen to this viral TED TALK)
The last 10-15 years of brain science research has begun to answer WHY this is the case. Essentially, its because those traumatic or long-term stressful events alter the brain and nervous system in such a way that it sets up the body to be prone to disease in a way that is not been generally accepted as typical. Medicine focuses on the disease itself (as it should) and root causes like viruses, bacteria, toxins, allergies, vitamin imbalances, etc, etc to help people survive. But now it is clear that medicine must also look upstream at the deeper, original issue that ignited all these imbalances, allergies, toxicities and inflammation. For too long, its been an elusive or intuitive hunch that there was a connection between those old, unresolved mental and emotional pains, traumas or events and then the onset of a disease months or years later.
How do my past long-term stressful situations or traumatic events affect the Nervous System?
In a nut shell, those very difficult events, such as a loss of a loved one, a stressful relationship or break up, a situation of abuse, an injury or accident, a difficult health struggle, will change how your brain remembers things, how it responds to everday life events, They will change the shape and function of your brain to become like expert security guards armed and ready for any inkling of threat. Your amygdala, the "smoke detector" of your brain will become enlarged and essentially act like an overprotective watchdog, firing off at anything and everything. Sound familiar? Now you can understand why you feel irritation at people so easily, feel overwhelmed when you feel pressed for time, or explode when someone gets in your way or is too slow. You're being ruled by your Reptile Brain!
When you go through an event that you felt incapable to manage or felt that you were trapped in it, your brain was altered and changed how it reacts to the world. That is why you say, "I've just never felt like the same person after that event". This is one definition of trauma. It can apply to more than just animals in the wild. It can apply to a teenager feeling bullied, overwhelmed parents of young children, a recent divorce that threatens your social, financial and emotional wellbeing, a medical procedure that felt shocking or degrading. There are endless situations that for one individual may cause them to FEEL threatened and react. If that situation goes on for a long time and they can't see how to escape it, it will alter their brain and nervous system.
those seemingly "mental/ emotional" things that keep people stuck or contribute to that feeling of daily pressure and stress don't just affect you psychologically, but those thoughts, memories, feelings and sensations, play out in your BODY and affect you right down to the level of your cell and DNA. This is how genes for cancer, autoimmunity, diabetes, etc get TURNED ON.
The brain science of the past 10 years has now defined how this all happens. The ACE's study and other long term studies what you feel and think translates into the body chemicals and hormones that fire up INFLAMMATION turn on the genes for disease. Science now understands how living in a world of toxic thoughts, feeling that you are not safe