What is Trauma and What the Heck Does it Have to do With My IBS?

When you hear the word, “trauma”, what pops into your mind? Memories of 9/11? Visions of tsunamis, earthquakes, war, murder, rape, or other horrors from the evening news? Maybe you flash on a serious car accident or a house fire. One thing is for sure. It’s easy to understand how these events could be traumatizing and have long-lasting negative effects on your mental or physical health.

What if you’ve never experienced anything like that? Do all traumas involve such big, dramatic events? Trauma researchers like Dr. Robert Scaer, Peter Levine PhD, and David Berceli PhD think not.

Dr. Scaer defines a trauma as any situation where you feel your life or safety is threatened AND you feel helpless to do anything about it. This really opens up the possibilities of what you might experience as a trauma, including events that many of us think of as a “normal” part of growing up. Like smashing into a curb and falling off your bike, being yelled at or bullied by someone bigger than you, or being embarrassed in front of the whole class.

But what does trauma have to do with IBS?…

According to the physicians and researchers who study the way your brain and body process trauma, the survival brain or “limbic system” powerfully affects your immune system, your heart and circulatory system, your blood pressure, your hormones and, of course, your digestive system.

When you go through a trauma and it is not released from your body and brain at the time it happens, it can cause problems even years later. IBS, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, migraine, and related depression and anxiety are all outcomes of trauma, according to trauma specialists. Bowel movements are controlled by an automatic system in your body that is seriously disrupted by the effects of trauma.

This is nothing to do with psychology. It is really about neurology and how the brain stores your experiences to help you survive.

Fortunately, trauma can be gently processed out of your brain and body so your digestive system is no longer triggered to react. A mind-body technique like EFT can help to re-program your nervous system and bring back the automatic systems of your body to proper functioning, breaking the cycle of IBS symptoms.

Imagine the possibilities! It’s important to recognize that when trauma underlies IBS symptoms, it does NOT have to dictate the state of your health for the rest of your life. You CAN do something about it and take control of your Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

More on trauma:

(For a checklist of trauma experiences that are common to people with IBS, scroll down to the end of this article.)

Doctors Scaer, Berceli, Levine and Servan-Schreiber trace the roots of trauma back to childhood.

Who is more helpless than a young child? Developmentally, children under age 7 or 8 have no ability to filter or reject incoming information. They have no choice but to accept all input as true. So when they are told they are ugly, fat, stupid, selfish, bad or that no one likes them, they accept it as fact, even when the message is implied rather than overt. They then begin to develop unhealthy coping strategies and behaviours to help them deal with life. To a child, this is what he or she must do to survive.

What do children experience as threatening? There are many examples, including bullying at home or school, alcoholic or mentally unstable caregivers, constant criticism or emotionally invasive parenting. However, even in the most loving families, trauma can be stored by the brain when the child has been through an accident, house fire, near-drowning, move to a new city or country, or some other change over which the child has no control.

Even disapproval from an important adult can feel life-threatening because children depend on adults for survival. We’ve all experienced that feeling of dying inside when someone criticizes us. The child’s mind can interpret this feeling literally.

While such an extreme fear may not make sense to the thinking part of the brain, this unconscious, instinctive response is how the survival part of the brain works. And, in fact, the survival brain has some reason for concern. Numerous studies have shown that babies who are not held and looked after often die. In ancient times, tribal members who were banished from the protection and community of the tribe did not survive long on their own. The survival brain is no doubt coded with memories of this fear.

But children are neither babies nor banished tribal members. So what’s the problem? Is a little disapproval really life-threatening to a child? After all, every child experiences disapproval at one time or another and not all children are traumatized.

In a normal healthy relationship, parents teach their children about safety and boundaries through mild disapproval. When a closely bonded relationship exists between parent and child, the child is resilient enough to handle the disapproval and to benefit from the lesson.

What makes a child resilient? Why are some able to bounce back and recover from a negative experience while others are devastated by it?

The relationship or bond between an infant and its primary caregiver, usually the mother, is very important to developing resiliency in a child. Close eye-to-eye contact with its mother positively affects the way a baby’s brain develops. When this contact and bonding does not happen, the brain has trouble developing in certain areas, particularly those parts that are in charge of emotions and the ability to recover from negative or traumatic experiences.

This means that, as the child grows, he or she tends to be more fearful and anxious, suffers more from setbacks, and is more likely to interpret disapproval as dangerous and threatening rather than just a temporary reaction from the parent.

Another reason some experience an event as traumatic while others don’t is: level of vulnerability. Age is a factor. Children, by nature, are more vulnerable than adults because their brains are still in the process of developing. The child brain does not yet have the reasoning capacity of the adult brain. Children just don’t have the life experience to be able to “put things into perspective.”

The number of times you are exposed to a negative situation also affects how vulnerable you are. When traumatic events happen often and accumulate over time, the greater the negative effects. Past experiences of trauma make you more vulnerable to experiencing future events as traumatic. It’s the “once burned, twice shy” reaction.

What’s important to realize is that no one chooses to feel traumatized. Your reaction to trauma is instinctual. It’s an automatic survival response that is affected by your previous experiences, but is not under your conscious control.

That being said, the impact of trauma and traumatic memories CAN be released from your brain and body. The No IBS Program uses EFT tapping for this purpose, and there are a handful of other methods. EFT tapping is the only method we know of that you can apply yourself, which means you can use it whenever you need it.

Once you release the trauma memories, you “de-activate” the triggers that set off your Autonomic Nervous System to respond with Irritable Bowel symptoms. That means you can significantly reduce and even end your symptoms. IBS clients report to us that they find relief from their emotional symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as their physical symptoms of diarrhea, constipation, pain, etc.

Trauma experiences:

  • car accident
  • other accident – skiing, bicycle, fall from a tree, etc.
  • sudden shock
  • bullying at home, at school, or at work
  • change of schools
  • a move that was not under your control
  • house fire
  • near-drowning
  • unexpected death of loved one or petchildhood abuse (shouting, hitting, etc. or witnessing these things
  • directed at another family member)
  • work abuse (boss from hell, etc.)
  • born in a hospital especially pre-1990
  • difficult birth
  • surgery as child or adult
  • parents separated or divorced when you were a child or adult
  • persecution of self, family members, or grandparents (religious, political, gender, etc.)
  • war or disaster experience
  • other

If reading through this list upsets you, follow the tapping procedure in any of our No IBS Videos on Youtube or watch the video at the bottom of the Disclaimer page, and substitute your reaction (upset, angry, scared, etc.) for the issue Kathy is tapping on. Or you can just think about what’s bothering you while you tap along with her. Keep tapping until you feel calmer.