A stressed woman holds her face in her hands, covering her eyes

Stress, Trauma, and Autoimmune Conditions: What Research Reveals

Painful life experiences can take a toll on your physical and mental health. We know that stress and trauma raise your risk of illnesses like drug and alcohol misuse, mental health issues, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other serious medical conditions.1,2

Stress is also one of the main triggers for an ankylosing spondylitis (AS) flare-up. And, in general, having a long-term health condition like AS can make you stressed. Experts even suggest deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and tai chi as ways of coping with the stress of AS.3,4

But can stress and trauma actually cause an autoimmune disease like AS? Only a few research studies have looked at the connection, and they reveal a possible relationship.

Trauma and autoimmune disease

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers looked at more than 15,000 adults who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in their childhood. They may have also witnessed traumatic events like substance abuse, mental illness, or their parents’ divorce. Results show that the more abuse the study participants faced or dysfunction they saw at home, the more likely they were to go to the hospital for autoimmune diseases later in life.1

More on this topic

A separate study found a connection between childhood trauma and C-reactive protein (CRP), which is produced by the liver. In high levels, this protein signals inflammation and may play a role in autoimmune disease. Researchers found higher levels of CRP in adults who experienced childhood abuse.1

Stress, PTSD, and autoimmune disease

Like trauma, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could also trigger autoimmune disease. Stress is an experience that causes physical, psychological, or emotional tension. PTSD happens after witnessing or going through a terrifying event and can set off flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety.

In a 2018 study, researchers examined more than 100,000 people with stress-related disorders. They compared the group to their siblings and others without a stress condition. The findings showed that those with a stress disorder were more likely to develop 1 or more autoimmune diseases, especially if they were younger.5

A different study of military personnel echoed these results. Researchers followed 120,000 active-duty military members for an average of 5 years. Those with a history of PTSD had a 58 percent higher chance of also having an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or irritable bowel disease. Researchers adjusted their findings for smoking, and alcohol use, and found no difference in the results.6

The bottom line

Science is making breakthroughs in revealing the link between PTSD, trauma, and autoimmune conditions. However, there is still more work to be done in figuring out why and how it happens.

Some researchers think biological changes in people with trauma and stress affect the immune system through more inflammation, activated genes, and faster aging of immune cells. All of these factors show a relationship between painful experiences and autoimmune conditions.6

Learning all we can about this complicated connection can help to ease the extra burden of managing multiple conditions.

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