heal, trauma, resilience, unbroken

When life experiences make us sick.

Most of us know there’s a strong link between traumatic life events and chronic illnesses of all kinds.

The most important part of this story, though, is how the equilibrium of illness can be shifted in the direction of resilience and healing, away from being sick. Because the challenges of trauma and adverse life experiences can be repaired.

Not one of us are sitting ducks to bad outcomes from the bad things that have happened.

As we continue to explore our terrain of healing, all that makes us us, we’re learning how all the things that make us sick can also help us become well again. How’s that possible?

Because we can use our terrain of healing (genes, environment, life experiences, lifestyle habits, mindsets and beliefs, communities and culture, ancestral legacies, and purpose) as a roadmap, a guide, an incredibly smart mentor (us!). One who shows us where our attention is needed most.

In this week’s excerpt from my new book, Unbroken: Reclaim Your Wholeness (coming in 2024!), we continue to explore this powerful template for creating the core resilience we need to rise out of pain, exhaustion, and feeling stuck.

Read on, my friends, for more on the powerful relationship between life experiences and health, including a little story of my own. 

Even terrifying and completely disempowering challenges can become life-enriching and resilience-building when there’s repair. At any stage in life.

Our Healing Terrain: Life experiences.

Life experiences are, of course, everything that happens to you in your life.

Just as important as how these experiences directly affect your gene expression and biology is how you feel about them, how they shape your understanding of yourself and the world, and how they influence your future behavior.

What we’re most interested in for our discussion of gene expression is what happens to you on the inside because of these experiences. Rather than focus on the events themselves, we want to consider how you responded to those events. How did they make you feel? How did they influence your perceptions, beliefs, and the stories you tell about yourself, others, and the world? As a result of your experiences, do you feel safe? Were your survival impulses activated? Did they provoke lots of stress? Or did they empower you, enliven you, and elevate you? How did they change your future behavior?

Your life experiences and what happens inside you as a result has a biology. That biology consists of all kinds of molecules that bathe your genes and shift gene expression. Your interpretations about what happens inside you—your beliefs and stories—and your future behavior continue to shape your gene expression, biology, and your life outcomes. In this way, your biography becomes your biology becomes your biography and so on. It’s a cascade of life experience, gene expression, biology, and life outcomes that feedback on themselves.

This cascade of biography and biology will either help you rise, shifting you into a robust equilibrium of resilience, or it will hold you back. By now we know if our life experiences hold us back, it’s a call to action to shift our equilibrium and direct our potential. We’re being called to disrupt the effects of those experiences on our life potential.

Let me give you an all-too-common example of the kinds of life experiences we’re called to disrupt.

Many of you have heard of the Adverse Childhood Experience, “ACE,” test.[1] This is a list of ten questions designed to ascertain harmful events, such as abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction, that may have happened to you as a child. Higher scores correlate well with what most of us would expect—problematic behaviors later in life, such as addiction and relationship problems, as well as mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts. But what may come as more of a surprise to you, is that higher ACE scores also predict chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune conditions.

While the ACE test is far from perfect as a measure of childhood stress and trauma—it does not assess for stress outside of the household, protective factors, or differences among individuals—it provides insight into the genetic and biological effects of life experiences and how they can lead to a host of common chronic and deadly illnesses later in life.

This research on childhood stress and trauma used to scare me.

When I took the ACE test many years ago, my score was worrisomely high. Shit, was I doomed to suffering, chronic illness, and an early death because of my childhood experiences?

Then I learned about other research looking at the positive effects of repairing childhood trauma. How the repair process in childhood (Sorry honey, mommy yelling isn’t about you, it’s about me, and so on.) leads to well-adjusted children. It is probably best if that repair happens in childhood before the trauma can cascade into years of dysfunctional adaptations and problematic behavior. But repair is repair in my book. I’ve done tons of therapy. I’ve learned to work with my body and feel my feelings. I practice self-compassion every day and hold my feelings in safety as they arise. I have worked hard to create relationships based on trust and authenticity. And I raised two incredible boys, now incredible men. Through loving them and learning from them, I have been able to give them what I did not get as a child. That, in and of itself, has been healing. And seeing how I didn’t ruin them after all, I realized the cycle of trauma stopped with me.

What did we just say about challenge? Even terrifying and completely disempowering challenges can become life-enriching and resilience-building when there’s repair. At any stage in life.

Based on epigenetic principles, the biology and gene expression of childhood trauma is modifiable. We now know we can purposefully shift the direction of gene expression and biology. By understanding the biological and genetic harm of traumatic life experiences, we have clues to how to unwind what happened inside us because of those experiences. We have a clear direction for creating conditions for healing that we will continue to unpack in this book.

Many blessings to all of you for 2024!!

Love,

Karyn


[1] NPR. Take the ACE test—and learn what it does and doesn’t mean. 2015.

Karyn Shanks MD

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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