Could the secret to chronic pain relief lie in the memories stored in your body and mind?

A woman undergoes EMDR therapy by a licensed practitioner.

It is clear that stress can have a direct impact on autoimmune, chronic pain and other health conditions. Autoimmune Warrior shares research on the role of chronic stress in autoimmune disorders in this blog post. However, the nuances regarding the types of stress and how to deal with them are not often something we talk about with a medical physician, or to anyone in general.

The body and mind are inherently connected and emotional stressors can and do impact our physical functioning. Beyond everyday stressors, traumatic events, whether they occurred long, long ago in your early childhood, or something you experienced this year can get stored in your body and can manifest in the form of stomachaches, back and joint pain, or chronic migraines, to name a few. Everyday stressors may refer to issues with setting boundaries with a family member, difficulty speaking up for your needs, or putting your needs last ahead of everyone else.

The effects of emotional stress and trauma on the body’s hormonal functioning and immune system are well researched. Dr. Gabor Mate, a Hungarian physician who has investigated for many years the potential psychological attributes to his patients’ physical illnesses, including breast cancer, ALS and intestinal issues, has found commonalities in his patients dealing with similar health issues. He found links between those who experienced childhood abuse, neglect and/or maintaining unhelpful relational roles and those who had chronic health issues. These connections are described in his book, When the Body Says No.

Stress and trauma impact hormone functioning. Specifically, research has found that cortisol, a critical hormone implicated in managing stress responses, is impacted by traumatic experiences. For example, decreased cortisol levels have been found in women who have a history of childhood sexual abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This change in cortisol level functioning can impact the immune system (Kloet et al., 2006), as healthy levels of cortisol help to regulate inflammatory response and glucose levels. When too much cortisol is released from the body, it constantly feels as if it is in fight or flight mode (whether it’s a real or perceived threat), which can inhibit the regulation of glucose levels and responses to attacks on the immune system. Click here for more information.

Furthermore, the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study conducted by Kaiser, found that the more adverse childhood events you have had, the higher at risk you may be for certain health conditions such as heart disease, breast cancer and diabetes. For more information on ACEs, read Autoimmune Warrior’s blog post. Additionally, click here to find out what your ACE score is.

So what does this all mean? It means that help in the form of psychological healing may positively impact your physical health and decrease the chronic pain. Addressing long-avoided emotional pain from past trauma can (and does!) help. If you are thinking to yourself “I didn’t experience trauma!” but you wonder why those boundaries are so hard to set, you feel guilty if you don’t take care of your parents’ emotional or physical needs, or you’re avoiding social situations (just a few examples), chances are there’s something from your past that may be keeping you from living an emotionally and physically healthier life today. There are many options for helping you in this area, particularly forms of body-based psychotherapy models that can be effective with chronic pain, including EMDR therapy.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapy uses bilateral stimulation in the form of eye movements or alternative tapping to activate memory networks which are linked to maladaptive functioning; in other words, it activates the traumatic memories that are linked to negative feelings and beliefs that we have about ourselves now (for example, having low self-esteem, triggers to not feeling safe when you know logically that you are). During a REM sleep cycle your eyes move back and forth as you process the day’s events. In the same way, bringing up those past memories with eye movements in a safe, controlled environment with a skilled EMDR therapist helps the brain process through the memory and come to a more adaptive resolution. It allows the brain the space and time to do what it couldn’t do at the time that event occurred—process. And that can help remove self-blame or other negative beliefs, and in turn, relieves symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, to name a few. With the relief of mental health symptoms, there is less stress on your immune system and this can improve overall pain symptoms and your energy level. To learn more about EMDR therapy, visit www.EMDRIA.org.

As Bessel van der Kolk suggests, The Body Keeps the Score, so let’s not forget to consider what has happened (or is happening!) in your life which may be contributing to your autoimmune symptoms.

Brooke Bender is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Board Certified Art Therapist, as well as an EMDR certified therapist practicing near Los Angeles, California. For more about Brooke, please visit: www.brookebender.com