We live in an age of physical complaints whose exact biological, organic, or “disease” causes are often hard to pin down. To say that many of them may have to do with prior or current trauma isn’t to say that they are psychosomatic or psychological in nature. Rather, that’s to say that trauma, stress, and psychological wounding naturally, logically—and often severely—play themselves out in the body.
No one doubts that there is a mind/body connection. People find it a little harder to accept that past unresolved trauma and ongoing present traumas can produce illness. We hate to think that we’ve opened ourselves up to respiratory problems, digestive problems, other physical ailments and medical conditions, and even chronically poor health because of the way our mind works and the way our personality has formed as a result of trauma. But that’s exactly what a mind/body connection implies. Our mental, emotional and psychological states affect our physical health.
The British National Health Service puts it this way: “Trauma is a term used to describe single or multiple distressing events that may have long-lasting and harmful effects on a person’s physical and/or emotional well-being. There is a direct correlation between trauma and physical health conditions such as diabetes, COPD, heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.”
The physical ailments and illnesses that result from unresolved trauma are anything but psychosomatic. Trauma-informed physical care connects the dots between unresolved trauma and physical illness rather than belittling or discounting an ailment as “merely” psychosomatic. If, for example, my hair turns white overnight because my child has been kidnapped, that is a stress-induced physical reaction to a traumatic event and not a self-induced psychosomatic reaction. I didn’t make my hair turn white by “not being strong enough” to deal with this event in a stress-free way or by “not getting over” the kidnapping as if nothing, in particular, had happened.
Likewise, if you’ve been traumatized by an authoritarian you ought not to blame yourself for a physical ailment precipitated by the wounding, you ought not to feel embarrassed or humiliated because you “let yourself” get sick by not being “mentally strong enough” to avoid illness, and you ought not to allow others to shame you, blame you, or discount the way that the traumatizing person acted as an agent in your illness or ailment.
It can prove hard not to feel embarrassed or ashamed, especially if you’ve continued your own wounding by entering into serial relationships with authoritarians. You may feel that, for those repeated mistakes at least, there really is no one else to blame but yourself, and that therefore you really did cause your own ailments. Looking at the matter that way sounds plausible but it actually discounts the power of trauma to “keep on giving.” Human beings are just not built that well to get over trauma easily, which is why early trauma and adverse childhood experiences matter so much.
Unfortunately, what this also means is that, like the authoritarian who harmed you and who exhibited moral bankruptcy by inflicting that harm, you may have taken the ethical low ground yourself by, for instance, siding with an authoritarian and not caring for those in your charge, by over-punishing and under-loving, by creating or aligning with arbitrary or sadistic rules, and so on. Blame or guilt are not the issues now: doing the right thing from here on out is. One of those “right things” is to recognize the powerful connection between authoritarian wounding and physical illness and to do what’s required to heal both the emotional and physical.
Let’s look at one story. Only after many years of repeating unfortunate relationship patterns and dealing with physical ailments did Anna come to recognize the connection between her authoritarian father’s wounding behaviors and her own lifelong difficulties. Her journey is not over and her healing is not complete but the awareness she can now bring to her patterns and the connections she can now make between traumatic wounding and illness are important steps forward.
“My father was authoritarian in my life. Living with him was disturbing and humiliating. He was completely unpredictable and alternated between being loving and kind and irrational authoritarian aggressiveness. He was a police officer and an Army reservist and at times he would treat me as if he were interrogating a suspect or as if I were a raw recruit in basic training. He was constantly on the lookout for ‘offenses’ that I might have committed. All went reasonably well—as long as I did things exactly his way.
“I would say that he was authoritarian through and through, although he could be empathic and charming in order to get his way. As a result of the way he treated me, I have always had great difficulty in making choices that are ‘selfish’ or that are the best for me. Instead, I compromise and try to make the other person happy and then I resent the situation. I struggle to admit that I have made these subjugating choices and I still find it hard to take the action to break away.
“I have married partners, not once but three times, that is controlling, and I have lived in a subjugated and self-sacrificing way. Each time I married I had to leave my town and my friends and community to move to my partner’s town, where I would then have to restart my life and my career. It’s a clear life pattern that I have come to acknowledge only this year.
“A major consequence of maintaining this position of subjugation has been recurring migraine headaches and asthma throughout my life. These illnesses flare up when I am very tense, when I continue to suppress my unmet needs, and when I well up with resentment. I have struggled to recognize this reality for most of my life. However, it has finally become clear to me that, wounded the way I was, I became a self-subjugating and self-sacrificing person who has difficulties being assertive when it comes to expressing my needs, beliefs, goals and heartfelt desires, and all this suppression makes me physically ill.”
The physical ailments we’re talking about can take many forms. One class of ailments that is epidemic is the class of sleep disorders. How many of the 80,000,000 Americans reporting sleep disorders have had their sleeplessness caused by authoritarian contact? It could be a great many. Here is Melanie’s story:
“The authoritarian in my life was my ex-husband. The experience was traumatizing. I was already prone to anxiety, which worsened, and I started to have physical side effects from stressors and lack of sleep. Every decision I made in my life was filtered through what he would want or how he would respond to my decisions.
“Based on my relationship with him, I had contemplated death by suicide because I damaged so many relationships and believed everyone would be better off without me. He (and I) had me convinced that I was worthless. Toward the end of the relationship, I developed a circadian rhythm disorder due to only getting three to four hours of sleep a night. I also dealt with years of trauma-related symptoms: hypervigilance, nightmares, an exaggerated startle response, anxiety, and flashbacks. When I finally forgave my ex-husband (unbeknownst to him) in March of 2016 (we had been separated since October 2009), my nightmares instantly stopped. It was incredible.
“I had already been struggling with anxiety for years prior although it progressively worsened. I had already demonstrated mild anxiety (which I did not recognize), then started dating him when I was 17, around the same time my parents separated. I clung to him through their divorce, going to college, the losses of my grandparents, my mom’s cancer diagnosis, and eventual passing. He was the only constant and I didn’t recognize his abusive and controlling traits until it was too late.
“When I broke with him, I felt guilty initially. The night we finally separated he threatened to kill himself and made other threats, too. I felt very responsible. Every time he called I thought I had to answer the phone. I was terrified to let it go to voicemail. When he stalked me in public, I thought I had to be nice and have a polite conversation with him. As more time passed and I gained more confidence and safety, I gradually felt saner.
“I was very fearful for a long time. What has helped? Supportive friends and family. Learning how to open up to people and not hide my wounds. Improving my personal boundaries with others. I’ve found people I trust, people I can talk to, people who value me, who love me, and who listen. And I am sleeping so much better!”
We also mustn’t forget the literal physical consequences of authoritarian aggression: the physical consequences of beatings and burnings, of malnutrition or an absence of dental care, etc. A victim’s scars may well be physical as well as emotional. Here, respondent, Bob was left with a shortened leg for life. Bob explained:
“Both my father and my stepfather were authoritarians. My mother was attracted to them because of her background. After my father cracked her head open, which I witnessed, she left him and released him from any responsibility. I learned from this that my family was terrified and that I wanted to escape. I also learned that my father didn’t value me enough to fight for custody and I felt the abandonment strongly, which I was forbidden to discuss. This all happened before I was one and I have memories from this early time because of the trauma.
“I learned that if my mother was upset enough, you could be banished and so I spent my childhood apologizing. I remember one instance when all of the children in our group thought to improve the look of the field next to our homes by painting the abandoned kitchen cabinets that had sat out for a very long time. At seven I was the oldest. The ‘paint’ we used we found in the garage and was a mixture of old paint and turpentine. When we proudly revealed our gift, there was tremendous fury. My stepfather targeted me as the oldest, stripped me in front of everyone, and beat me. I carried bruises for over a week.
“When I broke my ankle at the age of thirteen, I was humiliated into ‘walking it off’ for a day instead of being taken to the emergency room. My leg is short now because of this. Another time, I was pushed back into the corner of a bar because of something I said to my stepfather, injuring my tailbone. That there was a sexual component to this was obvious to me. My stepfather was a leader, gregarious and always appreciated by his colleagues. He was charming, loud, opinionated … and a racist and an authoritarian.
“Among the negative consequences have been self-doubt, guilt, shame, and hypervigilance. Also, a craving for attention and approval, since these were often withheld. And, of course, that shorter leg. But I am healing. What’s helped? Feeling my feelings. Positive self-talk and self-love. Recovery from addiction. Choosing not to respond to control and violence with violence. And CBT training for depression. That has helped me to focus on the future and to make letting go of the past a priority.
“I am still in contact with my mother. This Christmas I called, but neither my brother or stepfather requested to speak to me or I to them. I have no idea how to heal this or if it is even worth the effort. I feel furious at being made to feel the scapegoat and less than a stepchild even, and I no longer feel called to beg for attention and for their favor. However, there is another part of me that longs for peace and harmony in our relationship. All I can do is heal my thoughts and try to attract better people into my life. It’s hard to be guilty or ashamed or manipulated when you are legitimately doing your best. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
In my experience, most of my clients are dealing with one or another major physical complaint. Of course, most of these are not connected to authoritarian wounding. But some are—and many more than we might suppose. Trauma and stress produce physical consequences, many of which are clusters of ailments with no accurate name.
Often clients spend their whole adult lives with mysterious, disabling physical complaints that no pills or treatments seem able to cure. In some of these cases, it may be that the wounded victim needs non-medical healing that takes into account the trauma that he or she experienced and that focuses on the emotional and the psychological as well as the physical.
We are bombarded by drug ads that make it seem as if every physical complaint must be medical or biological in nature and best (and maybe only) handled by a pill. However, if you believe in a mind/body connection and in the possibility that trauma and other profound events can cause or contribute to physical ailments, then you know better than to accept a too-easy drug solution. For any physical complaint that is undergirded by psychological causes, you won’t find healing answers in a pill bottle.
Previously Published on Psychology Today