Changes in hormone levels, stress-linked protein levels occur in response to trauma. These events can even mark a person’s DNA, also known as epigenetics, which changes how the body “reads” the genetic code in ways that can be passed on to one’s children.
Traumatic events have been linked to changes in the immune system, inflammation, and immune cell function. Researchers are still trying to determine the exact changes that occur due to trauma and stress, but it is clear that post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, causes people to be more vulnerable to developing autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is characterized by intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings that typically relate to a major traumatic event in their lives. This event can have happened directly to them, to someone close to them, or to the world at large. In either case, the experience, or the details thereof, have left a deep and upsetting psychological impression in the person’s mind and caused many changes in their body.
PTSD can contribute to other mental health issues as well, such as fatigue, depression, anxiety, and mood fluctuations. People experiencing traumatic events can have issues adjusting to life after the event, as well. Not everyone develops PTSD in response to a traumatic event. And sometimes the symptoms are temporary, but PTSD can also linger throughout someone’s life. Psychotherapy including both therapy and medications, can help with many of the manifestations of PTSD.
Anyone can potentially develop PTSD, but certain people and professions are exposed to more traumatic events.
Military service, as well as certain dangerous professions, also involves exposure to hazardous substances, increasing the risks even more. People who experience natural disasters, tragedy, abuse can also, and hardship (especially early in life) can develop PTSD.
Women and people of African American descent are especially likely to experience traumatic events and to develop PTSD. This could potentially account for why lupus is more likely to develop in women, minorities, and people with high-stress professions.
PTSD and Lupus
People who have PTSD are 2-3 times more likely to develop lupus, and in some cases traumatic events might trigger the first symptoms of SLE. According to an analysis of medical records, the first diagnosis of SLE can show up within a day, or within years. Though this is not a very good measure due to how difficult it is to get an immediate diagnosis of either condition.
The more symptoms of PTSD that are reported, the more likely the person was to develop lupus. However, the two disorders go both ways: Some symptoms of SLE might be heightened or exacerbated by lupus, as well, including anxiety, depression, and fatigue. You can read more about fatigue and the neurological symptoms of lupus here.
Genetics play a significant role in who develops lupus from PTSD or other causes.
Genes determine how sensitive immune system cells are to changes. Also, how resistant they are to “stand down” signals. As well as how well the immune system culls out antibodies that target the body’s own cells.
For people who are already at a higher risk of developing lupus, PTSD can potentially push them over the edge into developing the disease and experiencing a flare. Other factors can also further increase the risks of developing autoimmune disease, including:
- hormonal treatments (such as oral contraceptives or postmenopausal hormones)
- exposure to dangerous substances
Developing lupus can cause additional stresses that can exacerbate both the symptoms of lupus and the symptoms of PTSD. For example, employment or on the job troubles due to lupus can make it difficult to normalize oneself and might cause reminders of the trauma. Flare ups of either disorder can feed into the other, and lead to a separate symptom flare. This makes taking care of both the PTSD and lupus very important for people with lupus and PTSD.
Treating Lupus and PTSD
A mental health professional is an important part of your lupus treatment team. You can read more about them, here.
Stress-reducing methods, such as mindfulness, can help reduce symptoms of lupus and help heal the deep wounds caused by PTSD. Medication and self-management are important for controlling both conditions, and bringing down lupus symptoms through can give PTSD therapy room to heal. Expressive therapies such as art therapy, writing therapy, music therapy, aromatherapy, and stress-relieving supplements such as green tea, can also help.
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