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Fibromyalgia: The body holding on to past trauma

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Reprinted with the kind permission
of Barbara Keddy

“The traumatic moment becomes encoded
in an abnormal form of memory, which breaks spontaneously into consciousness, both as flashbacks during waking states and as traumatic nightmares during sleep.”
~ Judith Lewis Herman ~

Trapped in our psyche, past traumas wind themselves into the body and present as a multitude of physical symptoms. Pain, extreme crushing fatigue, intestinal difficulties, severe itching, rashes, tingling of limbs – the list seems endless. We seem not able to control our anxiety about when or which kind of bodily experiences will be next. We are constantly on guard, judging past and possible future symptoms… was this pain the same a few minutes ago? Will it become worse? If I do this or that will it harm me? What is this new symptom about?
I realize that hurt does not mean harm, but my brain does not seem to register that fact. My central nervous system is always on alert. The term ‘central sensitization’ is now a term used more happily (or less dubiously at least) by physicians and other health care workers, so I rarely use the stigmatized word of fibromyalgia anymore. I believe it is PTSD, but I don’t mention that either. I can reflect upon my childhood and young adult life and pinpoint the traumas that etched themselves in my central nervous system. I wish the neuroscientists would ask for fibromyalgia volunteers for their PET scans and fMRIs.  I would love to see these images of my brain. I know how many major traumas have affected my mind/body.

The Body Keeps The Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk has become my source of hope and courage. I urge my readers to read Dr. Van Der Kolk’s book from cover to cover. It is only through at least a cursory understanding of the neuroscience of the brain that we can get a handle on the stored memories of pain that are reactivated with a fibromyalgia flare up or the nagging constant symptoms that have become chronic. One of my favorite lines in the book discusses ways to regulate our own physiology – breathing, moving, and touching” (p.38), themes I have been advocating throughout these blogs. It is about letting go, which isn’t easy.
Van Der Kolk’s thesis is that after trauma we are left with a different nervous system and we are trying to control our inner turmoil. He writes, “These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases.”(p.53).
Dr. Van Der Kolk has introduced the diagnosis of Developmental Trauma Disorder in the Appendix of his book. It is a useful guide for those of us who are hyper-vigilant, highly sensitive, inundated with unpleasant bodily sensations, fearful and yet willing to change the brain and “befriend the body.” He writes “Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard.” (p.102) That defines fibromyalgia.
We can begin to reconnect with ourselves; it isn’t a hopeless scenario. We can begin with Talk Therapy, but then progress to Mindfulness Meditation, yoga, mild exercise, and touching or being touched in a gentle non-threatening way. These are the ways to begin healing.

About the AuthorBarbara Keddy, BSc.N., M.A., Ph.D., Professor Emerita, School of Nursing, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, has lived with fibromyalgia for more than 40 years. Barbara has been interested in social justice issues throughout her professional career, with particular focus on women’s health, resulting in her book Women and Fibromyalgia:  Living with an Invisible Dis-ease

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2 thoughts on “Fibromyalgia: The body holding on to past trauma”

  1. IanH says:

    Is Barbara Keddy a proponent of the “functional disorder” idea. It seems so from this writing. I suggest Dr. Keddy does some big time reading of the current research. Particularly in epi-genetics. This is what I recommend for all my Psychiatrist friends too.

    Personal beliefs, eg that Fibromyalgia is PTSD or is a functional disorder is outdated and of little value. I know of several childhood cases of FM and in each of these cases I can see no history that suggests PTSD. It is too easy to recollect and associate past events, particularly those which created anxiety to a chronic disease. Back in the 60’s and early 70’s this was very popular in cancer too.

    I do recommend cognitive and behavioural change including meditation to manage chronic illnesses but effectiveness in symptom management tells us nothing about the origin of an illness.

    1. IanH says:

      What does Dr. Keddy think “central sensitization” is?
      Central sensitization is also present in Autism, Multiple Sclerosis, SLE, PD, ME/CFS, in some sufferers of Tinnitus, in many stroke victims and victims of spinal injury.

      Central sensitization exists when basal ganglia fail to perform modulation and integration of signals. The evidence for the involvement of the miRNA family is mounting. Keep reading!

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