When I first got sick 20 years ago I had no idea that I was in the early phases of developing a disabling chronic illness. I didn’t know back then, when I was still a family doctor, that adversity was a risk factor for all kinds of chronic illnesses as well as mental health conditions, addictions, challenges in relationships and more. And I had no idea that my problems with my health would begin to teach me how to listen to my body, and that my body would show me the way to heal.
Together, all of these factors influenced my decision to leave medicine.
They also lead me to retrain as a somatic trauma therapist and to discover my passion, which has been to understand how adverse experiences of all kinds increase risk for chronic illnesses and more. These are my favorite books, documentaries, therapies and other resources I've found over the past 20 years of combing through the evidence.
Once we discover this connection between adversity and long-term health, the next questions often center around how to learn more and how to heal.
Given the complexity involved with trauma, its effects, and the sometimes lengthy journey it can take on our journeys of healing, I've created this post to offer tools to use in addition to traditional approaches since it is often helpful to have multiple tools, especially for those of us working with symptoms of chronic illness.
The resources listed here support recovery through stories and by highlighting the new science of how experiences interact with our genes and our nervous systems, immune systems and beyond. They explain and emphasize why it's not psychological.
This compilation includes the most helpful books and resources I’ve found over the past 20 years. While my focus is primarily on chronic illness, these resources can be helpful for anyone struggling with the effects of adversity.
Attached is a free downloadable list of these and additional resources. The free PDF contains links to resources and breaks them down according to approaches for working with different categories of adversity such as
- ABEs (adverse babyhood experiences)
- ACREs (adverse childhood relationship experiences)
- AIEs (adverse institutional experiences) discrimination
- AMEs (adverse multigenerational experiences)
- and more
Most of these are approaches I’ve learned, trained in and / or used myself as a client on my own journey of gradually recovering from my chronic illness. At my worst 10 years ago, I was mostly bedridden for almost a year. Although I still have a little ways to go, I am now able to function almost normally most of the time. Many of these approaches are supported by small studies, case studies, and even small RCTs but they are not evidence based as more traditional methods.
- learn how symptoms are influenced by nervous system perceptions of threat
- get tips and links to find a therapist for different types of adversity
- learn why pacing is important
- find resources for understanding trauma
- learn of tools for working on your own
- get inspiration from others who share wisdom from having walked this path
- read stories from others with chronic illnesses who understand links to trauma
- access my free downloadable ebooks
You can find a list of somatically-based, trauma-informed therapies that support healing in this companion post. The chronic illness books and therapies list below includes these therapies.
Chronic Illness Books Introducing Trauma
There are new books coming out every day as the science grows and our understanding of the chronic illness and trauma connection becomes more and more accepted. These remain my favorites.
1. The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity (2018) by pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, MD who is a leader in the ACEs movement. If you want to understand if and how trauma has affected your health and have limited time to read it all, this is the book to start with.It explains how California’s first surgeon general first learned about the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). This awesome book is my favorite introduction to trauma and its effects on the nervous and immune system and much more. Describes the ACE questionnaire looking at 10 types of trauma and how they affect risk for chronic illness, mental health conditions, difficulty in relationships later in life and much more. She includes her story as a doctor and from her own life, how she incorporates ACE screening into her practice, and the ACEs science influences how she evaluates, treats and helps her patients.
2 & 3. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter Levine, Ph.D., founder and creator of the somatically based approach Somatic Experiencing (SE). I find these two books to be among the best, most helpful, readable and approachable books on trauma. Both give examples and the second includes Peter's own experience of being hit by a car and how he made sense of and worked directly with the event in his own life to prevent the development of symptoms.
4. Even if it Costs me My Life: Systemic Constellations and Serious Illness, by Stephan Hausner. This comprehensive, powerful, easy-to-understand book can help give you insights about origins of your illness, how it’s not your fault, and how disease can represent something that has been excluded in a family system rather than being an individual issue. This book includes stories and case studies to demonstrate just how strong the effects of trauma in our parents and grandparents’ lives can be in influencing risk for chronic illness. It also demonstrates how much healing can happen and how this can also sometimes happen very quickly. Includes stories of people with lupus, fibromyalgia, CFS, cancer, MS, allergies, Crohn’s, scoliosis, asthma and more.
5. The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency, by Robert Scaer, MD a neurologist who learn about trauma from Peter Levine and who discovered how much it helped make sense of mysterious illnesses, chronic pain and many chronic diseases. For anyone wanting to better understand the physiology and science of trauma and the changes that occur in the brain.
6. When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection, by family physician and speaker Dr. Gabor Mate, who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. A friend gave me this book because it summarizes so many of the different types of trauma that affect risk for chronic illness and does so through stories. Includes the science. It is written with a voice of compassion with an eye for the truth that is sometimes painful to witness while also deeply validating for the soul. Includes stories of people with RA, MS and other chronic illnesses as well as discussion on adversity in babyhood and childhood.
Chronic Illness Books for Working on Your Own
There are many activities that support nervous system regulation that you can do on your own or inexpensively with CDs, videos or online. These are helpful for working with chronic illness as well as mental health conditions and do not imply your symptoms are "all in your head.".
1. Healing Trauma: Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body,by Peter Levine Ph.D. It includes an introduction to trauma and a series of gentle exercises to start on your own or with a friend or partner. It comes in paperback and kindle formats as well in audio download formats with a CD and can be taken as an online course. You can also find it at Sounds True.
2. The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. This book was written by colleague and fellow somatic trauma therapist Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D. Complex trauma refers to wounds that arise in our first attachment relationships with our parents. I have not yet read this workbook but have heard wonderful things about it.
3. It Didn't Start with You:How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, by Mark Wolynn ((Wolynn, M. (2016). It Didn't Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle)). Mark starts by sharing a story of how he healed an autoimmune eye disease when he worked through some multigenerational trauma and reconnected with his parents. It provides guidance and very specific steps for working with symptoms of all kinds even if you have no sense of trauma in your ancestors' lives. Also presents the science of adverse multigenerational experiences (AMEs) and stories of healing.
4. My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, by Resmaa Menakem. Social worker, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, Social Justice Educator who shares the history of race and racism from a trauma-informed perspective for all white, black, blue and other bodies with nonjudgement and compassion. Includes thoughtful, gentle somatically based exercises.
Chronic Illness Books for Inspiration
1. Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal by science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa's describes the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)studies and how learning about ACEs helped her begin to heal. Donna is well known here on ACEs Connection and describes a number of serious autoimmune diseases that run in the family. Donna shares links between stress, toxic stress and chronic illness, which are slightly different from the trauma perspective, even as many similarities exist. Her approaches support nervous system patterns of regulation and include yoga, meditation and mindfulness practice as well as Somatic Experiencing (Peter Levine's approach, briefly described later in her book).
2. The Brain's Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticityby Norman Doidge,MD offers a series of surprising and inspiring stories of people who have improved, stabilized and / or fully recovered from chronic illnesses and physical symptoms. Most of the approaches described are not specifically oriented to healing from trauma but address nervous system changes by working with the ability of our brains and neurons to recover, even years or decades after an event. This is known as brain plasticity. Some of these changes appear to be linked to patterns of survival and Doidge has compiled a fascinating theory in Chapter 3 that is consistent with what I've learned about trauma and how our bodies learn to perceive threat.
3. The Mother and Child Reunion. Psychologist Tony Madrid's book with stories of curing asthma by healing bonding disruptions, which reflect the effects of adversity in “babyhood.” Includes examples of what it looks like when prenatal events, difficult birth and other adverse babyhood experiences (ABEs) interfere with bonding and the heartwarming stories of recovery from symptoms of asthma. He's been doing this for more than 30 years. It's about compassion for the unrecognized traumas mothers experience and how healing mothers helps their kids recover and reestablishes the links of love.
My Free Downloadable Ebooks
I've written over 30 free downloadable ebooks to help make sense of The Chronic Illness & Trauma Connection. You can find these and others on my ebooks download page.
Find somatically based trauma therapists for different categories of adversity, which are also included in the free downloadable resource list included with this post.
I invite others to add your recommendations in the comments below for all to see and access because there are many terrific resources out there!
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Brom D, Stokar Y, Lawi C, et al. Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study. J Trauma Stress 2017 doi: 10.1002/jts.22189. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28585761
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Joseph J. The JJ WAY®:Community-based Maternity Center Final Evaluation Report. Orange County, FL: JJ Way Commonsense Childbirth.org, 2017:21.
Madrid A, Brown G, Pennington D, et al. Helping asthmatic children through bonding therapy. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 2011;26(2):65-85.https://birthpsychology.com/jo...ough-bonding-therapy
Payne P, Crane-Godreau MA. The preparatory set: a novel approach to understanding stress, trauma, and the bodymind therapies. Front Hum Neurosci 2015;9:178. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00178. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25883565
Payne P, Levine PA, Crane-Godreau1 MA. Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers in Psychololgy 2015;February doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00093 http://journal.frontiersin.org....2015.00093/abstract
Schroth G. Prenatal bonding (BA): A method for encountering the unborn introduction and case study. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 2010;25(1):3-16.https://birthpsychology.com/jo...ction-and-case-study
Schwartz A, Maiberger B. EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology: Interventions to enhance embodiment in trauma treatment. New York: WW Norton 2018.
Shadick NA, Sowell NF, Frits ML, et al. A Randomized Controlled Trial of an Internal Family Systems-based Psychotherapeutic Intervention on Outcomes in Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Proof-of-Concept Study. J Rheumatol 2013 doi: 10.3899/jrheum.121465. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23950186
Shapiro F. The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine: Addressing the Psychological and Physical Symptoms Stemming from Adverse Life Experiences. The Permanente Journal 2014;18(1)
Yehuda R, Spiegel D, Southwick S, et al. What I have changed my mind about and why. European Journal of Psychotraumatology 2016;7:33768. doi: 10.3402/ejpt.v7.33768. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27837585