Traumatic Stress and Autoimmune Disease- Is There A Link?

I didn’t want to write this post. I mean, I did want to write it; but, I wanted to do it in a kind of medical, sciencey way. However, I believe I would have been doing you a great disservice. For me not to share my personal experiences with traumatic stress and autoimmune disease would have been unfair to you.

traumatic stress
Traumatic Stress and Autoimmune Disease- Is There A Link?

I first got the idea to write this post on September 11th, the day we memorialized all those who perished on that fateful day in 2001. It’s a day that lives in all Americans’ memory. For me, it is also the day we buried my cherished grandfather, PaPa. And, that’s where my story begins.

On September 9, 2001, as I sat drinking my morning cup of coffee, I received the dreaded phone call. My mother’s voice cracked as she told me my PaPa had passed away in his sleep the night before. Shocked, I just remember repeating the word “no”, over and over again. When I stood from my seat, and then fell over onto the floor, my husband ran over and grabbed the phone from my shaking hand. He finished the conversation with my mother, made flight reservations for that afternoon, and packed our bags, as I lay on the floor, unable to move or talk.

my papa captain of the cajun lady
My Papa, Captain of the Cajun Lady

I really don’t remember anything that happened from me hearing the news of PaPa’s death until the moment I felt my grandmother’s arms around me. I don’t remember getting ready to leave, the flight to Louisiana, or the drive to my grandmother’s house from the airport.

My family gathered at Ma and PaPa’s house, as we always called it. We relived all of the wonderful memories of my PaPa. My brother and his family, who was also living in Chicago at the time, was flying in the next day, September 10, 2001. He would be staying at the same hotel as my husband and me. My PaPa’s funeral was set for September 11, 2001.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as we dressed for my PaPa’s funeral, my husband turned on the hotel television, just in time to see the second plane fly into the World Trade Center. We stood, unmoving, staring at the screen in front of us. I heard someone say, “We are under attack. America is under attack!”. The next thing I knew, I was running down the hotel corridor to my brother’s room. I frantically banged on the door. When my sister in law answered, I just started screaming, “We’re under attack! We’re under attack! Turn on your TV!”. All I could do was point my finger toward the TV screen, in disbelief.

The next several hours are still a complete blur to me. I know we picked up my Ma (grandmother), attended PaPa’s funeral and burial, and ended the day back at Ma and PaPa’s house. I remember the day being marred by the 9/11 attacks. I remember everyone talking about it. And, I remember the grief…..and FEAR, I felt that day.

Over the next few days, those of us who had travelled by plane, realized how close we had come to disaster. We had all flown United Airlines only a day or two before the attacks. Our return flights had been cancelled indefinitely. not that any of us wanted to fly back anyway. We ended up renting cars to make the trip back home.

Now, I’m going to fast forward a bit here. I’m not trying to write a book here. But, it’s important you see the entire chain of events, to understand the story.

In October 2001, I discovered I was pregnant with my first baby. I was super excited! I set out to have a very healthy pregnancy. I threw out all the junk food and brought in the good for us stuff. At 10 weeks, I was already starting to show. Since twins ran in both of our families, our doctor wanted to do an ultrasound to be sure there was only one baby there. In the ultrasound photo, I could see my baby, waving it’s little hand at me.

At the end of January 2002, I went to my doctor’s office for my four month checkup. I was 14 weeks along. During my exam, my doctor failed to find my baby’s heartbeat. Another ultrasound showed my baby had passed away.

Since I have a negative blood type, and the baby possibly had a positive blood type, they had to schedule an emergency D&C. I had to have my baby taken away from me before I even had the chance to comprehend what had just happened.

Once home, I didn’t leave my bed for a month. I had never experienced such emptiness in my life.

my beloved Ma
My Beloved Ma

At the end of 2003, Ma was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. I left my life, my house, and my husband to go to Louisiana to take care of her. I took her to her chemotherapy treatments. When that failed, I worked with hospice to care for her day and night. On September 8, 2004, just one day from the three year anniversary of PaPa’s death, my beloved Ma passed away, as I held her hand. One of the last things she said to me was, “Make sure you go put flowers on PaPa’s grave today.” She thought it was September 9th.

ma and papa
Ma and PaPa

My grief was overwhelming. I can easily say, I have never been the same since Ma’s death.

After dealing with Ma and PaPa’s estate, it was time for me to return home to my husband, who I have to say was a trooper the whole time. To help deal with the loss and the hole in my heart, I adopted this beautiful little pup, who I named Coco. She became my world. I took her everywhere with me. And, man was she spoiled. She followed me around the house, slept with us in bed, and cried when I didn’t carry her. She was my baby.

coco my baby
My baby, Coco

On September 9, 2009, Coco passed away, in my arms, as I drove frantically to her vet’s office. She had died seconds before I could run through the entrance door. By the time I was inside, it was too late. They called my husband for me. He was there in mere minutes. I crumbled.

My health started to deteriorate pretty quickly after that. A visit to my doctor revealed an elevation in my T cells. She had worked with enough patients with PTSD over the years to know this was an indicator of PTSD. She referred me to a specialist for a formal PTSD diagnosis. I never visited the specialist.

I think you all know how the story goes on from there. In 2013, I received my lupus diagnosis. Everything I’ve read on autoimmune disease supplies a link to stress as a trigger. If stress is enough to trigger an autoimmune flare, just imagine what traumatic stress could do.

I started to study the link between post-traumatic stress and autoimmune disease. A simple Google search will lead you to thousands of articles and studies revealing a link between traumatic stress and autoimmune disease. I read hundreds of them.

The link seems to be between chronic, post traumatic stress and a dysfunction of the immune system. Although there hasn’t been any evidence based research to date, all studies have shown a problem with cortisol regulation in people suffering from chronic and traumatic stress. This is what makes that person at higher risk for developing an autoimmune disease.

So, do I believe my traumatic stress caused my lupus and psoriasis? I don’t think so; but, I don’t think it helped matters. In fact, it may have simply triggered the flare I needed to finally get a proper diagnosis.

If you’ve suffered one or more traumatic stressors, I urge you to get help from a professional. You don’t have to accept all of their treatment options; but, they can help you with stress relieving techniques. We all know that once you have one autoimmune disease, you are more susceptible to acquiring others as well. If you get treatment in time, you may be able to stop more from being triggered.

It is also important to do stress reducing activities at home. Personally, a structured eating plan (AIP), yoga, and a little extra magnesium have helped immensely. I also carry Bach’s Rescue Remedy Spray and lavender essential oil with me. A quick spray or sniff can help balance me, even if just for a moment. The trick is whatever works for you.

Now that we know there is a link between traumatic stress and autoimmune disease, this gives us the power to try to control the impact stress places on our health. We can’t always control the stressful event or situation. We can, however, control how we allow it to consume us.

For me, every year, I hold my breath on September 8th through September 11th. Finally, on September 12th, I would breathe. This year, I vowed never to hold my breath again. I purposefully did not look at the calendar at the beginning of September. I went about my life, without knowing the date. If I had an appointment scheduled, I only looked at the day, not the date. Before I knew it, I had breezed through the ninth of September. And, no one had passed away. And, I didn’t have a flare.

For more information on the effects of stress and autoimmune disease, I recommend:

This is the Magnesium supplement I use:

More help:

Tara Perillo

Welcome all. I am Tara Perillo, herbalist, homeopath, yoga and fitness instructor, and healthy foodie . After successfully reaching remission of my lupus symptoms, through changes in my diet, exercise, and lifestyle, I wrote the ebook, Sickness To Fitness Quick Start Guide. I am also honored to have my paleo and AIP recipes featured in Paleo Magazine, Paleo Living Magazine, Shape Magazine Online, 85 Amazing AIP Breakfasts, The Paleo AIP Instant Pot Cookbook, and blogs by The Paleo Mom, Kris Kresser, Whole New Mom and many others. My focus is to help others become stronger in every facet of their lives. Join me to become stronger in health, mind, body, and spirit, together!

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12 Replies to “Traumatic Stress and Autoimmune Disease- Is There A Link?”

  1. Beautiful post and very insightful. I have experienced PTSD myself and I have suspected for a long time that it has been one of the big triggers for my autoimmune disease (not the only one, but a major one). It took a lot of therapy to get over my PTSD. Have you done some?

    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement, Sophie. Therapy is a long, arduous process. I’m still in therapy, and improving every day. It’s so important that we learn effective ways to deal with traumatic events, especially when we are trying to heal our autoimmune disease(s).

  2. Hi Mo – there is no doubt in my mind that my (in)ability to manage stress has contributed to my autoimmune issues. Thanks for sharing your story – it’s hard putting yourself out there on the inter web!

    1. You’re so right! I kept doing everything I could think of to avoid writing this post. But, I thought of all of you out there, dealing with your own trauma. It’s important we know we’re not alone. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. I absolutely believe that stress can be that switch flipper when it comes to turning on autoimmunity. It’s scary to think about, but it really makes sense to me. I applaud you for opening up and sharing this part of your life with us. <3

    1. Thanks Erin. I sincerely appreciate your words. I agree, the thought of stress, especially traumatic events we have no control of, having such an impact on our health, is scary. It’s so important that we, as bloggers in the autoimmune community, continue to share our insights. Thanks again.

  4. Mo I completely believe that traumatic stress has the capacity to trigger autoimmune disease. I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism many years ago but it was after my brother died after a 5 week battle with cancer 5 years ago that my problems really started. I would very definitely say my health was moving down a slippery slope before I discovered the AIP and since doing so, I know the journey backwards isn’t so slippery after all. I’m really pleased you have found what keeps your disease in check. Here’s to good health x

    1. Thank you so much Kate, for sharing your story. I don’t think anyone realizes how heavy stress weighs on their health. I love hearing about those of you who have taken your health into your hands with the AIP. We are all fighting to keep our bodies symptom free and healthy again. That courage is amazing!
      For those of you who may not know, Kate runs one of my favorite sites, Healing Family Eats. I encourage you to check out her site for fabulous AIP recipes and insights.

  5. I agree with this, I was the “Happy” person when my father in-law was diagnosed with a incurable brain tumor. I kept him happy and made him laugh. I kept this up for 6 months till my immune system said no and got really sick and wasn’t allowed to see him. The day I was well enough to go and see him he passed way in his sleep. I truly believe while I made his last months happy (an would do again in a heart beat) I made myself sick and 2 years later I am improving slowly, but improving none the less.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Peta. Often when we are the caretakers for someone who is terminal, we neglect our own health and care. While we are grateful for the chance to give back to loved ones, we seem to suffer after putting ourselves on the back burner, so to speak.
      I’m so happy you are improving. It is often a long road. You should be so proud of yourself, that you’ve come this far. Stay with it. I wish you continued success in improving your health. Thanks again for sharing.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. I agree 100% with it and know that the death if my father and reoccurring loss over the next 7yrs was the trigger for my diagnoses of Hashimotos. Realizing this and dealing with all the trauma (including from childhood) was a major breakthrough in my healing process. Thank you again for sharing 🙂

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Carrie. It’s truly amazing how many of you can resonate with my story. We are under such a great deal of traumatic stress in our lives. This takes a toll on our health and lives.
      I would like to thank you for sharing. I’m so glad that you’ve had a breakthrough to help in your healing. I wish you continued recovery.

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