Your Illness Could Be The Aftermath Of Nervous System Dysregulation Caused By Untreated Trauma


In my book Sacred Medicine (which will be published Spring 2022 with Sounds True), I weave the threads between energy medicine, shamanism, spiritual healing, and healing trauma, making the case that many chronic or life-threatening illnesses that conventional medicine finds difficult or impossible to treat are the result of the autonomic nervous system dysregulation caused by unhealed trauma.

SO many of us carry not just the “Big T” traumas that can lead to a high Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score, but even more destructively sometimes, the “little t” traumas of everyday life that happen as the result of developmental trauma, when we fail to get our core developmental needs for connection, attunement, trust, autonomy, and a healthy connection between love and sexuality met.

Thanks to Stephen Porges and his Polyvagal Theory, we now know so much more about what happens in the body, in the autonomic nervous system, in the immune system, in the presence of chronic inflammation, and in end organs affected by chronic sympathetic nervous system hyper-arousal and/or chronic dorsal vagal hypo-arousal. This nervous system dysregulation can lead not only to practically every mental health diagnosis in the DSM-V, but also to a host of medical conditions, like:

-chronic pain syndromes
-chronic fatigue
-irritable bowel syndrome
-environmental sensitivities
-autoimmune diseases

Although we would need much more research to establish a link, chronic nervous system dysregulation and its physiological aftermath related to untreated trauma may even be a risk factor for post-viral syndromes like long COVID.

Perhaps even the #1 and #2 killers- cancer and heart disease- are impacted by trauma and its effects on how the body’s natural self-healing mechanisms break down and make the body susceptible to blocked coronary arteries and out of control malignancies. The scientific link between untreated childhood trauma and adult onset chronic disease is bulletproof at this point. According to the copious ACE studies, almost every physical illness is more likely in those with a high trauma burden, and longevity is shortened by as much as twenty years in those who never get their traumas treated.

ACE’s & Illness

If you doubt that trauma and disease are strongly linked, consider what California Surgeon General and pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, MD said in her groundbreaking TEDMED talk:

“In the mid-’90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente discovered an exposure that dramatically increased the risk for seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States. In high doses, it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed. Folks who are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy. And yet, doctors today are not trained in routine screening or treatment. Now, the exposure I’m talking about is not a pesticide or a packaging chemical. It’s childhood trauma.”

She’s referring to the landmark 1990 study of 17,421 patients, conducted by Dr. Vince Felitti at Kaiser Permanente and Dr. Bob Anda at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who collaborated on the ACE study, which has resulted in over seventy peer-reviewed scientific articles. While some chronically ill patients find this data disheartening- and I get how hard it can be to hear this- I share it because, while it’s sad and scary, I also find this data to be hopeful. While we need more data to prove that treating trauma can reduce symptoms or even cure certain diseases, anecdotally, the stories of seemingly miraculous remissions from diseases that previously failed to respond to treatment (even cancer and heart disease) is growing by leaps and bounds.

There’s No Quick Fix

The good news is that trauma is treatable, and it’s never too late to begin healing it. While trauma can make us feel imprisoned by our emotional and physical symptoms, there is a way to open the door and get better. It’s not easy. There’s no quick fix.

And because healing trauma is kind of the wild, wild West right now, even the experts in trauma have a hard time finding consensus about what works most effectively to treat trauma and the effects it can have on the body/mind/spirit.

Yes, it can be expensive and time consuming and emotionally wrenching, so don’t trust anyone who tells you there’s a quick, painless, easy solution. But I do believe treating trauma effectively and improving our health- and our longevity- as a result is possible.

Heal At Last: Democratizing Healing

In my non-profit work at Heal At Last, we’re working hard to begin scaling and democratizing healing work and making it available at the public health community level, much like a 12 step program is.

Right now, trauma treatment is largely a luxury good for privileged people who can afford it. We seek to change that. But we’re just getting started with Heal At Last, so please be patient.

To those of you who are chronically ill, carry a heavy trauma burden, and feel hopeless, please know there is a whole team of people who care about you and are mobilizing every resource we know how to mobilize in order to get you the help you need and deserve.

Educating Mainsteam Health Care Providers About Trauma & Disease

In the mean time, we are doing what we can to teach the medical community how to be more trauma-informed. In the Whole Health Medicine Institute, we offer a trauma-informed approach to working with chronically ill patients and offer certification to our practitioners who are interested in becoming better doctors, therapists, and CAM providers.

We train health care providers and therapists about the link between trauma and disease, not only so they can better help patients become miracle prone, but because trauma awareness and trauma treatment often helps our students have better physical and mental health personally.

We just started enrolling for the Whole Health Medicine Institute Class of 2021. Learn more and apply here.

If you don’t want to wait until Sacred Medicine comes out to learn more about this topic, we also do a lot of psycho-education and group trauma healing in Healing With The Muse, the ongoing online program I teach.

Join Healing With The Muse here.

A Reading List To Support Trauma-Informed Health Care

Here’s some recommended reading, in case you want to learn more.

Mind Over Medicine, revised edition (2020)– Lissa Rankin
The Body Keeps The Score– Bessel van der Kolk (who is joining the WHMI faculty this year)
When The Body Says No– Gabor Mate (WHMI faculty)
Healing Developmental Trauma– Laurence Heller & Aline LaPierre
No Bad Parts– Richard Schwartz (WHMI faculty)
Radical Remission– Kelly Turner (WHMI faculty)
Cured– Jeffrey Rediger (WHMI faculty)
What Happened To You?– Bruce Perry & Oprah Winfrey
Nurturing Resilience– Kathy Kain & Stephen Terrell
The Polyvagal Theory In Therapy– Deb Dana
The Heart of Trauma– Bonnie Badenoch
The Body Bears the Burden– Robert Scaer-Complex PTSD- Pete Walker
The Mindbody Prescription– John Sarno-Unlearn Your Pain- Howard Schubiner

If you’re a health care provider or therapist on the precipice of growing, learning, expanding, healing, and educating yourself about what really causes disease and what really facilitates optimal health outcomes, this could be an exciting time of transformation and healing for you.

View A Mini-Series From The Five-Month Online Program That Will Transform Your Relationship With Health Care.

Lissa Rankin