According to a study cited by Bessel van der Kolk, incest survivors such as myself are at risk for autoimmune problems.
Learning this after being diagnosed with two autoimmune disorders led me into a dual, outer/inner inquiry into the psycho-biology of invasive trauma. Here are my reflections.
Inflammation and Autoimmune Disorders
Autoimmune diseases are characterized by the body attacking its own cells, tissues and organs.
Autoimmune disorders include vitiligo, pityriasis alba, lichen sclerosus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, celiac sprue disease, pernicious anemia, scleroderma, inflammatory bowel diseases, Hashimoto’s disease, Addison’s disease, Graves’ disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, type 1 diabetes and possibly multiple sclerosis.
Autoimmune conditions manifest as overwrought immune systems and chronic inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s “fight” response to infection or invasion. Chronic inflammation is like being in perpetual fight mode.
You could say that autoimmune disease is a state of perpetual self-fight where the body treats itself as an enemy. This metaphor of self-attack or self-hate is congruent with psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) studies (summarized by PNI doctor Mario Martinez) that connect shame with inflammation.
According to Martinez’ Biocognitive Model of Immunology, human biology is shaped by our cultural beliefs. One example of this is how the varying cultural beliefs and language associated with menopause produce different perimenopause experiences for women.
Martinez notes that the Chinese term for menopause is “second spring.” In Japanese it is “the turn of life.” In these Asian countries, menopause is viewed as a natural season of life.
In Peru and other South American countries, the term for hot flashes is bochorno, or “shame.”
Interestingly, Chinese and Japanese women experience far less pain and inflammation (which PNI associates with shame) during perimenopause then Peruvian and other South American women do.
Dr. Martinez recommends that we be aware of our inherited cultural messages, and consciously affirm language and beliefs that encourage wellness.
Dr. Martinez’ Biocognitive Model is aligned with the Tibetan Buddhist perspective that says “Everything is a projection of our own mind.”
Child sexual abuse survivors and other PTSD survivors tend to over-defend (or under-defend) against violation long after a traumatic invasion.
I have written previously about how we respond somatically and inter-relationally to situations and people that remind us of the initial trauma.
The traumatized body recreates traumatic experiences by projecting them onto the present, and interpreting low-stakes situations as threats. Our system becomes “inflamed” with reactivity.
Trauma also generates interpersonal boundary problems. This shows up as porous energy boundaries and difficulties with clearly communicating “yes,” “no” or “maybe.”
Trauma survivors’ boundaries are often too rigid or too permeable. We may respond to everything with “no” (consciously or unconsciously), or be unable to say “no” at all. Neither extreme supports the safety and connection that we need to thrive.
With allergies and other immune imbalances, our biology is doing something analogous to “saying no to everything”. Again, inflammation is the body’s response to infection or invasion.
In the case of allergies, our body interprets foreign bodies like pollen, foods, fragrances, etc. as hostile attacks on the body. Our hypervigilant immune system over-reacts and over-protects us with the huge somatic “No!” of inflammation.
We know that incest survivors are vulnerable to systemic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. I wonder, are survivors also prone to allergies?
Does the violated body superimpose its history of traumatic invasion onto benign substances, and then stimulate allergic “No!” reactions?
And what about survivors of other violating traumas, such sexual assault, “stop and frisk,” immigrant detentions, and other invasive forms of oppression?
Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies and Lifetime Exposure to Violence and Abuse studies add richness to this inquiry.
These studies link cumulative child and adult experiences of neglect, violence and abuse to increased incidence of illness.
We can extrapolate from these studies to include the social traumas of racism, ableism, classism, sexism and other oppressions.
Since oppressive micro and macro aggressions are also forms of violence and abuse, they must impact the immune systems of targeted children and adults.
It seems that abuse, violence and oppression can become internalized as low self-esteem and shame in our psyches, and as inflammation and autoimmune disease in our bodies.
If My Body is Attacking Itself, What is My Mind Doing?
I have been pursuing a parallel, internal inquiry: If everything is a projection of my own mind, and my body is producing autoimmune problems, what is my mind projecting?
This is not a New Age-y, “You create your own reality” question. It is a curious question arising from both mind and body.
Remembering Mario Martinez, I explore this question by paying attention to my habitual self-attacking thoughts and beliefs.
When I am still inside, I can “overhear” a self-punishing undercurrent. It’s a ceaseless critique of my failings, my unfinished to do lists, my physical pain and life challenges.
If I listen closely, this ruthless voice reminds me of my father’s infamous lecture-interrogation marathons. We couldn’t leave, not even to go to the bathroom. Hours of this left my siblings and I fainting with fatigue. No wonder my inner critic has such stamina!
Other times I hear my mother’s sharp, guilt-inducing tones, or my sister’s accusations. Although I have not heard these voices for years, my mind recreates them.
Other self-attacks take the form of thoughts that frighten and discourage me, such as “I will never get out from under this (problem),” or “What a strange pain!—it must be cancer!”
How insidiously these thoughts tear me down. How exhausting it is to worry, worry, worry. My mind fusses like a badgering micromanager, an inconsolable baby.
It fusses over my housework backlog, predicting the dire consequences of unwashed dishes or dusty shelves: (“Dust collects toxins! How can you ignore it!”)
My mind fusses over my perimenopausal fatigue and inertia (“This cannot be normal!”), and my uneven exercise routine (“Why are you so lazy?”). It fusses over every imperfection. Wow.
How can I expect my immune system to protect me, to recognize me as friend while my mind habitually attacks me? I am setting a bad example.
It’s time to find new ways of talking to myself.
Recently I blamed and shamed myself for being in a difficult situation. Then I heaped on more self-criticism for my reactions. Finally, I was fed up.
I told myself and my inner child, “It stops here…I absolutely refuse to make myself miserable about my situation or my response to it.”
I declared an end to the war on myself.
Since this declaration, something is shifting. This shift is subtle and slow. Easy to miss. Yet things are different. For instance, sometimes I find myself surprisingly likeable.
The self-hating attacks subside. In the quiet, my nature is revealed.
More often now,
I savor what I used to dismiss in myself:
I see my nature.
I am a creator. A sower of life.
I am inclined to rest in stillness and write slowly, reflectively, or angrily, passionately;
I am inclined to meditate. To walk in the wind and sun and rain. To love what I see, and share it with Zee.
It’s my Nature.
More often now,
I savor what I used to disparage in myself:
As old mental habits fall away,
I see my behaviors and their consequences differently.
I see the consequences that are off-shoots of my nature:
The consequences of my tsunami nature crashing into my PTSD-shaped body.
The consequences that I used to self-surveil, self-terrorize, obsessively analyze are amusing, endearing.
I have declared peace on myself.
Even my bird companion is more relaxed. Hmmmm.
How on earth did this happen?
I know that practice is key–
–Is it decades of being a bird-mom to quirky, unfathomable feather people?
Is it years of providing space for their safety and self-expression?
Now the bird-mom mothers me! I provide space for this quirky, unknowable me.
Oh self-attacking immune system, this body, this me is NOT a problem. Not a threat. (My parents misperceived me. It was a mistake.) I am a forgiveable human.
More than forgiveable, I am lovely and amazing.
My presence is as precious as any flower or bird. Any cloud.
Immune system, protect me, all of me, from disdain and worry!
Immune system, I grant you permission to cherish me, ALL of me:
The pain, the fatigue, the works in progress, the despair, the creakiness, the default distrust, the spiritual epiphanies and awakenings, the piles of unwashed dishes, my art, my mistakes, myhealing at my own damn pace.
All of it, worthy of love.
Immune system, I am worth fighting for, not against.
Fight for me!
The Mind Body Code by Dr. Mario Martinez
The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Embracing Each Moment by Anam Thubten