Women, fibromyalgia, and a history of trauma…

Throughout my years working in mental health, it is almost an exception that a client presenting with chronic mood instability and/or anxiety does not have some degree of chronic pain, tension, or achiness. Today, the spotlight will be on fibromyalgia.

Among other comorbid conditions, in my work, fibromyalgia seems to be almost synonymous with depression and anxiety.

Fibromyalgia has been somewhat of a trendy diagnosis over recent years- it is a diagnosis of exclusion of which parameters are somewhat vague and often misunderstood. People experiencing fibromyalgia often report widespread full-body pain with persistent achiness. They often have sleep disturbances, fail to wake up rested, feel exhausted by the pain, complain of poor memory/cognition- also known as “fibro fog”, and often have gastrointestinal distress. The pain often is unrelenting even with anti-inflammatory and/or opioid pain medications.

Nine out of ten fibromyalgia sufferers are women. A bit of a staggering statistic, right? As fibromyalgia begins to be more understood, it seems to coincide closely with chronic stress, a history of trauma, and hypervigilance. Serotonin levels are often low and the sympathetic nervous system, which promotes our fight/flight reaction tends to be over-active. It has been found that fibromyalgia and chronic pain is significantly associated with adverse childhood experiences- especially physical and sexual abuse.

In fact, just to stress this point, adverse childhood experiences (also known as ACEs) are associated with a number of negative health outcomes. One of my favorite discussions about this is a TED talk featuring pediatrician, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris featured below- please watch:

Striking, sad, frustrating, and ultimately highlights the importance of addressing trauma and emotional well-being as a means to promote whole-body wellness.

Unfortunately in my work with women and girls over the years, similar to the association with chronic pain, a history without abuse is more the exception as the vast majority of my female clients report a history of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse.

Being aware of the multiple intersections between emotional wellness, a history of trauma, and perceived pain underscores the importance of approaching our vitality and health from an upstream model- one that addresses root causes, rather than a downstream approach, which in the case of chronic pain and fibromyalgia often involves a slew of specialists, painkillers, and perhaps costly interventions.

Exercise and psychotherapy have been found to be amongst the most successful interventions for fibromyalgia.

In fact, exercise alone has been shown to have just as much antidepressant effect as a typical SSRI antidepressant medication and when sustained, is associated with less relapse of depressive symptoms compared to when treatment only involves medication.

Sharing our stories and learning to perceive ourselves as survivors and ultimately, as “thrivers” is paramount to healing as the role we play in our story informs and influences not only our emotional wellness, but our body as a whole.

Restoring emotional wellness, which we prioritize at She Soars Psychiatry, may also allow for dramatic and transformative changes throughout the body.

It is a journey worth taking. We are not about quick-fixes, but partnering with you in a transformative process that promotes self-determination and empowerment as you confront your concerns leading to sustainable and long-lasting solutions!

Let’s be kind to ourselves.

With gratitude,

Audry Van Houweling, Owner, She Soars Psychiatry, LLC

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