This month we are discussing the relationship between childhood maltreatment and experiences of pain and disease.

The fact is, many survivors struggle with chronic pain, autoimmune diseases and other chronic conditions. (1) Without understanding how these conditions are related to childhood maltreatment, survivors can feel even more flawed, broken and condemned.

A possible answer

In reality, these states are possible physical consequences of childhood maltreatment. Due to the increased level of stress on our body during development, our systems have been permanently changed. This wear and tear is known as ‘allostatic load’. (2) Too much wear and tear can result in a system that is over reactive and does not function properly in stressful situations. (2)

For years I had hated my body for being tired, for constantly being in pain. When I finally realized it was associated with what happened to me, I started to understand that my body was the victim here. It had endured so much, and rather than supporting it- I was mad at it. Rather than doing things to make it feel better, I was doing the exact same things the violent person had done. Yelling at myself for things that weren’t my fault. Hating my body for things it couldn’t help. This realization helped me to see that hating myself for being ‘weak’ or ‘pathetic’ was in no way helping to make me stronger. 

Moving forward

We must learn to stop blaming ourselves, and shift into taking care of ourselves.

While we can’t undo the stress caused to us in childhood, we can change how we manage stress in the present to protect ourselves from further wear and tear.

Tool 1: Active self care

People who experience violence often struggle with self care. There are many reasons for the gap.

A major reason is self worth. When we grow up in a situation in which we are constantly met with violence, rejection and pain- we learn we are unlovable and unworthy. It then makes perfect sense why we would fail to care for (and love) ourselves.

Another reason is learned. Violent caretakers do not teach us how to engage in responsible self care. Violent people are often engaged in self destructive behaviors like substance use, self harm and cruelty. As a result, we have no concept of what self care looks like.

Self care is however extremely important for managing stress. If we are well rested, well nourished, fit, and have stress relief practices we naturally more able to tolerate stress (think how reactive you are when you are hungry or tired). Plus, you are able to manage stress better by going to tools like community, hobbies, and creative practices.

  • Do a self care audit. Do you have self care practices? Are you actively setting yourself up for success with nutrition, fitness and good sleep hygiene? Do you have a routine, practice or tool you use to combat stress (other than a bag of chips or that bottle of wine)? If your answer is no, you are not alone. These are practices. They are also skills- possibly ones you have never learned.
  • Consider the gaps in your self care, and build a strategy for amending them. If you struggle with something, get help. I know it seems logical, but so often as survivors we don’t seek support. Asking for help, admitting you need support or don’t know- all of these were actions that were unsafe with the violent person. As an adult, it is important to realize this pattern that kept you safe previously, is holding you back now.
Tool 2: Self soothing

A second key tool to limit the wear and tear of stress is self soothing. This lines up with self care, but encapsulates our practice in the face of what we find stressful.

Again, self soothing is a practice we learn. Often people will mimic the soothing they learned from a caregiver. If their mother told them they were going to be okay, they internalize this dialogue and use it to comfort themselves.

When we are raised with psychological violence, we don’t receive these messages. When we were upset, we were told to shut-up or to stop crying. When we were in situations of stress, the violent person may have put the burden on us as children to manage the situation.

Self soothing is the practice of meeting our emotional needs in the moment, so we can get out of reacting and into responding. I’ve described this practice in other places, but it is so incredibly important to learn and to use in real time.

Action (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model):
  • Become aware that you are having a stress or emotional reaction.
  • Verbally reassure yourself using your own name “You are safe Alison.” “This is just a memory.” “This is just someone’s opinion, it can’t hurt you.”
  • Rub your arms and legs like you would with a child.
  • If you still are caught up in your experience, start to describe your immediate surroundings to yourself. “I am in X room, with blue walls and a window.” Focus on coming into this moment.

Note: if the distressing stimulus is in the room with you, you may be at risk of dissociating to get away from the ‘unsafe’ thing. This is a totally normal reaction for those who have experienced trauma. Try to use your logical brain to ascertain if you are in fact ‘unsafe’. For example, if you are triggered by someone making a rude remark, you are in fact safe and can use these practices to counteract an overreaction. If you are in the presence of the violent person, you must assess what is the safest course of action for you.

Next steps

As survivors we have endured enough stress. As adults, we have the opportunity to learn how to minimize our stress, and how to manage it productively. It is so easy to read a blog post and think ‘that’s obvious’ or ‘that’s too hard’. Doing the work is how you change your life.

Taking the actions suggested above can make a difference in your energy, your pain, your day to day experience of life. That is worth the difficulty!

Check out this meditation on self calming with a physical association as an easy first step.

If you know someone who experienced childhood maltreatment and is suffering from chronic pain or disease, share this post with them so they can begin to learn about the correlations!