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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

What is the connection between trauma, stress and illness? Can a health coach help?

Jul 01, 2024 06:00AM ● By Hope Knosher
It’s widely understood that while trauma may not be the only cause of chronic illnesses, it does play a big role in contributing to various physical and mental health conditions. Understanding the connection between trauma, stress and illness is quite complex, as they each have an impact on each other.

It’s important to remember that different people may respond to traumatic events differently, and not everyone who experiences trauma will develop trauma-related symptoms or a diagnosable mental health disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Traumatic experiences can have significant and lasting effects on people’s lives, relationships, and overall well-being, and reaching out for support from qualified health professionals is important for healing and recovery.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines PTSD as a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. These events can be physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening, such as physical or sexual assault, natural disasters, serious accidents, or combat. PTSD is an abnormal response to triggers that can last for days and even years after the incident.

Studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have revealed that traumatic events during childhood can lead to a range of serious health problems later in life. ACEs include various forms of maltreatment, such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, household dysfunction and parental substance abuse. These adverse experiences can have a profound and lasting impact on an individual’s physical, mental, and overall well-being. The evidence shows that the effects of ACEs can persist into adulthood, leading to increased risk of chronic diseases, mental health disorders and even premature death. 

The Effects of Trauma

Here are some of the physiological, psychological and behavioral changes that can occur due to trauma and contribute to chronic illnesses:

Altered stress response. When someone goes through a really tough experience, it can negatively affect how their body deals with stress, throwing off the body’s stress response systems. If the trauma is serious or happens over a long period, these systems can remain in overdrive, leading to long-lasting feelings of being on edge, hyper-alert and physically stressed out.

Health issues. Being under a lot of stress for a long time—whether you’ve been through something really tough or you’re dealing with stress ongoingly—can take a huge toll on one’s physical health. Stress that doesn’t let up can cause all sorts of health issues, such as heart problems, immune system trouble, stomach issues, metabolic problems and long-lasting pain.

Psychological effects. Dealing with trauma and chronic stress can have a big impact on mental health, possibly leading to PTSD, depression, anxiety or substance use disorders. Symptoms like intrusive memories, avoidance, hypervigilance and emotional ups and downs can make things even more challenging. It’s important to take care of yourself and seek support when dealing with these kinds of difficulties.

Weakened immune system. Dealing with trauma and chronic stress—and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline—can really throw off the immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections, inflammation and autoimmune issues. Inflammation caused by ongoing stress can also play a role in the development and worsening of different illnesses.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms. When people experience trauma or chronic stress, they may turn to unhealthy coping methods like drinking, overeating, being inactive, or withdrawing from social activities. These behaviors can harm their physical health and raise the chances of developing long-term illnesses.

Ineffectively trying to deal with trauma and chronic stress can affect our physical and mental well-being, our relationships and our overall quality of life. The experiences are significant risk factors for health problems and can worsen existing illnesses, so it’s important to recognize and address the connections between trauma, stress and health to nurture well-being.

Healing from Trauma

Healing from unprocessed trauma and PTSD is a multifaceted process that is unique to each individual and requires personalized care. Peter A. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and somatic experiencing practitioner who has made significant contributions to the understanding and treatment of trauma. His view of trauma emphasizes the interconnectedness of mind and body and the importance of integrating both in the healing process. He believes that trauma therapy should address both the psychological and physiological aspects of trauma, help individuals reconnect with their bodies and restore a sense of safety and well-being.

While the journey toward healing may vary for each person, several strategies and interventions can support the healing process.

Seek professional help. It’s important to reach out to health professionals who are knowledgeable about trauma and who use helpful techniques to help with trauma symptoms and encourage healing.

Practice self-care. Don’t forget to take care of yourself! Remember to engage in activities that support your physical, emotional and mental well-being. This can include things like getting regular exercise, eating healthily, getting enough sleep, practicing mindfulness, using relaxation techniques and doing things that bring you joy and fulfillment.

Explore somatic therapies. Don’t forget to consider including somatic therapies, trauma-informed yoga and trauma-informed health coaching into your healing process. These approaches aim to work with your body to help release tension, regulate your nervous system and effectively process any trauma stored in your body.

Build a support network. Surround yourself with supportive friends, family members or support groups who can offer understanding, empathy and validation. Connecting with others who have experienced similar challenges can provide a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation.

Engage in creative expression. Explore creative outlets such as art therapy, journaling, music, dance or poetry to express and process your emotions, memories and experiences nonverbally. Creative expression can facilitate healing, insight and self-discovery.

Practice grounding techniques. Incorporate grounding techniques into your daily routine to help anchor yourself in the present moment and regulate overwhelming emotions. Grounding techniques may include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, sensory grounding exercises or visualization techniques.

Set boundaries and prioritize self-care. Establish healthy boundaries to protect your physical, emotional and psychological well-being. Learn to recognize and honor your needs and limitations and prioritize self-care practices that nourish and replenish your energy.

Educate yourself. Educate yourself about trauma, PTSD and the healing process. Understanding the physiological and psychological effects of trauma can help you make sense of your experiences and empower you to take an active role in your recovery journey.

Practice patience and compassion. Healing from trauma takes time, patience and self-compassion. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to progress at your own pace. Recognize that healing is a nonlinear process with ups and downs and celebrate your achievements and milestones.

Cultivate resilience. Focus on building resilience and cultivating strengths to help you navigate life’s challenges and setbacks. Embrace your inner resources, resilience, and capacity for growth and transformation.

How a Health Coach Can Help

A trauma-informed health and wellness coach takes into account the impact of trauma on their clients and creates a safe and supportive coaching environment. A trauma-informed health and wellness coach prioritizes the following:

Safety. A trauma-informed health and wellness coach wants to make sure their clients feel safe both physically and emotionally. They also promise to keep everything that is discussed confidential and to treat their clients with the utmost respect throughout their coaching relationship.

Trustworthiness and transparency. These coaches work to build trust by being reliable, consistent and clear in their communication. They make sure to explain the coaching process and set clear expectations.

Peer support. Trauma-informed health and wellness coaches encourage their clients to nurture connections and support from those who have undergone similar experiences. They might facilitate group discussions or support networks when appropriate.

Collaboration and mutuality. Health and wellness coaches see coaching as a partnership and encourage their clients to play an active role in their healing and wellness journey.

Empowerment, voice and choice. Coaches encourage clients to focus on their strengths and empower them to take control of their lives. They seek to support clients in expressing their needs and preferences and include them in their decision-making process.

Collaboration with other professionals. Trauma-informed health and wellness coaches recognize when their clients might benefit from extra support from mental health professionals, such as therapists or counselors. They help connect clients to the optimal resources and are willing to collaborate with other practitioners.

Benefits of Trauma-Informed Coaching

There are significant benefits to trauma-informed coaching. Dealing with trauma can make a big difference in one’s overall well-being and help improve one’s mental health, lower stress levels and enhance one’s quality of life. Trauma-informed coaches seek to help their clients feel heard, valued and encouraged, which serves to create a more impactful coaching partnership. Clients become more self-aware, develop better coping skills and build resilience, which helps them to handle challenges more effectively. Finally, by recognizing and dealing with the root causes of trauma, individuals are better able to make lasting changes in their behavior.

If You Need Additional Support

Although a health coach can be very helpful, there can be times when dealing with unresolved trauma when specialized treatment is called for to go beyond what health coaching can offer. For example, if you’re going through tough times, such as intense anxiety, depression, PTSD, flashbacks or having suicidal thoughts, reach out for help as soon as possible to a licensed mental health professional.

Healing from trauma can involve deep emotional work that is best handled by therapists who are trained in trauma-focused therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Somatic Experiencing.

Mental health professionals are here to help. They can offer a diagnosis and create a personalized treatment plan just for you that might involve therapy, medication or a combination of methods.

Dealing with trauma and PTSD is a personal journey, and it’s okay to take it slowly. Remember that everyone’s healing process is unique, so be kind to yourself. Embrace therapeutic approaches, trust your inner strength and don’t hesitate to seek professional help. It’s perfectly okay to reach out for support from caring professionals and understanding loved ones. You’re not alone; it’s important to prioritize your well-being as you navigate through this journey. ❧
Based in Atlanta, Hope Knosher is the founder of Healthy Living with Hope, offering health coaching, yoga classes and retreats. She is a national board-certified health and wellness coach, a certified yoga therapist and a certified E-RYT 500 yoga teacher. Contact her at 770-789-7782.
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