“Neat where others were sloppy, organized where they were confused, sure of himself while they floundered, he cut a swath through England’s murderers that left the police far behind. Unimpressed by titles, unfazed by difficulties, untiring in his labours, Hercule Poirot stood as a bulwark protecting English society from legions of lady poisoners, gentlemen stranglers, and murderers of all sorts and persuasions who, without his efforts, would have escaped justice. Though he occasionally berated himself for his few mistakes and miscalculations, he knew his own worth well enough. Spurning false modesty, he allowed as how he was ‘the greatest mind in Europe.’”
- ‘Hercule Poirot, The Man and the Myth’ by Jerry Keucher, from The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie by Dick Riley and Pam McAllister
So, as I explained in this post on the basics of how early trauma affects us, abuse and neglect during our formative years add extras into our experience of PTSD and one of those is physical illness. (a reminder that ‘formative’ is in terms of brain development; so up until the age of 25)
One of the big reasons for this is hypervigilance and the limbic system. How being constantly surrounded by an abusive environment makes you highly sensitive to sensory input (hypervigilance), and how this affects you physically.
Basically “why am I so fucking sick all the time and why doesn’t it seem to have a cause” or “what does it mean when they say that my PTSD is causing these physical symptoms”.
First you’ll have to bear with me while I explain some things about your brain and it’s parts, because otherwise this won’t make any sense.
Your amygdala is part of the limbic system that controls instinct and the panic response. It’s sometimes referred to as your “lizard brain”. And because you don’t really need to know how the whole thing is rigged, I’m going to keep calling it that. (Like you can look it up if you want, i’m not going to stop you). It’s the instinctive part and also where your core beleifs about the world are (called schemas; which is another topic).
This is the part of your brain that tries to keep you alive at any cost, where the ‘flight, fight, freeze or feign’ response lives.
Your amygdala develops very early, which is why babies can experience fear. But it develops before the conscious thinking part. Much like an actual lizard, your lizard brain doesn’t ‘think’ or reason, it just watches and notes what is dangerous, and what has worked to save you and stores that information. Because what your lizard brain’s main function is is to keep you alive in a crisis.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? This is the part of your brain that has already slammed on the brakes before you decide to when you’re cut off in traffic, or that gives you that feeling that ‘this is dangerous’ when you can’t really figure out why, but later find out that WOW you were so right. It is activated when it sees that you are in danger, and it is going to take too long for you to decide what your response will be.
Ok so now we know what it is, but how does this relate to PTSD or hypervigilance and how can this make me sick?
In an untraumatised brain, the limbic system (specifically the amigdala) will dump stress hormones into your brain and body when you are in extreme danger. One of these we already know is adrenaline, but the hormone that is most important here is a steroid called cortisol.
Cortisol basically cuts off all the regular limits your body sets so you don’t get injured, because when you’re in danger it doesn’t matter if you get injured so long as you survive. This means you can run faster and longer, you’re stronger, your senses are sharper, you’re hyperaware of your surroundings and you don’t feel pain.
This is how mothers can lift cars off their babies in a crisis. Or how come you don’t notice that you’ve broken your arm in a car accident until later.
Cortisol is great when your brain functions properly.
However; when you’ve been exposed to extreme and ongoing trauma, you become hypervigilant. You have to be constantly aware of every tiny change in facial expression, every sound, every change in tone or every slight movement. You are always prepared for danger and always trying to pre-guess what and when is going to happen. In an abusive environment, you have to do this to stay safe.
The thing is that when you’re constantly in this state of hypervigilance and hyperarousal (not sexual arousal but sensory; where you could hear a cricket fart next door), your limbic system is constantly wired up. And it’s constantly activating your FFFF (Fight, flight, freeze and feign) response, and constantly dumping your cortisol to keep you ready.
What ends up happening is that your limbic system eventually stops being able to turn OFF your cortisol tap. So instead of a dump, its a leak. Constantly dripping into your system as it’s created - even after you’ve escaped the abuse.
But cortisol is good isn’t it? It makes us stronger and faster and feel less pain?
Yes; but if it didn’t have a downside we wouldn’t only have it as an emergency plan.
Cortisol is a steroid and an immunosuppressant, in a dump it forces more blood sugar production and shuts down the digestive system. Long term it decreases cartilage and bone formation, affects glucose levels along with a whole swag of of other things.
People with this ‘cortisol leak’ can experience
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
decreased bone density leading to osteoporosis
gastrointestinal problems (nausea, vomiting, bowel problems, difficulty digesting food or absorbing nutrients leading to nutritional deficiencies, IBD, constipation, and diarrhea)
Severe allergic reactions and other autoimmune disorders
decreased immune response causing slower healing times and more infections
memory issues; short term memory, and issues relating to the maintaining or accessing of memories
and on top of all that are 300% more likely to self harm.
It also has the fun circular effect of… making you hypervigilant.
So, much in the same way that anxiety stops us from doing things which then gives us more anxiety which means we can’t do even MORE things, over and over, the limbic system makes us hypervigilant which breaks the limbic system which then makes us even more hypervigilant. And also sick.
PTSD is, as you’ve probably already realised, pretty good at cycling into awfulness like that.
But this is why the effects of traumatic abuse when our brains are forming is so profound, and so hard to heal. We quite literally have been given a form of brain damage, and our brains no longer function physically in the way they are designed.
Next up; I’ll be talking about the psychological effects of this; Maladaptive Schemas. (Which means that the things you learn as ‘’life truths’’ in an abusive environment while you’re developing can end up being warped, and that affects our ability to process information; including therapeutic information.
Till then, stay safe and know you’re not alone in this shit. Hollow
imma go cross fandom here and jump on the trend because i crave the interaction, but hit me up with a like/reblog if you would be interested in roleplaying with the rooster lawyer apollo justice from capcom’s ace attorney series?
i guarantee a whole bunch of shenanigans, objections and snark! i will also make a verse to suit your fandom’s timeline~