Adult survivors of physical and sexual abuse frequently complain of a host
of illnesses and psychosomatic problems during their adult lives. The most common generalized effects include stomach problems, difficulty in breathing, muscular tension and pain, migraine headaches, incontinence and heightened susceptibility to illness and infection. In addition, skin disorders, back pain ulcers and asthma are common ailments that are stress-related and may signify unresolved childhood abuse issues. In cases of sexual abuse, the breasts, buttocks, anus and genitals may be the site of discomfort, chronic pain and otherwise unsubstantiated sensations. If the survivor was forced to have oral sex, s/he may experience episodes of nausea, vomiting and choking that are unrelated to a physical or systemic cause. Incontinence has been found in survivors who have been sodomized. Again, we remind you that any or all of these problems may be caused by non-abuse-related factors or conditions as well.
In particular, sexual abuse has been linked with gastrointestinal functioning, while leftover feelings of anger may be related to migraine headaches. Some research indicates that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are more frequently found in women who have survived prolonged sexual abuse. The bingeing and purging behavior that characterizes eating disorders offers survivors a sense of control over their bodies when they lack such control over their feelings. Phobias, such as claustrophobia, although not technically physical symptoms, may be directly related to the circumstances of the abuse, as in the case of a child being locked in a closet for hours on end. Sudden weight gain and obesity can also be related to childhood abuse, and are sometimes related to the survivor's need to feel more insulated from his/her body or to present a safer, non-sexual appearance to the world.
Depending on one's childhood experience and type of personality, illness can have different meanings for the survivor. Being sick can offer an opportunity to be taken care of either by yourself or someone else. For some survivors, the best care they ever received from their parents may have been when they were sick. Being sick may be one of the few instances in which survivors will care for themselves. In many cases, however, illness may be the body's message that all is not well emotionally. When strong feelings are repressed, the unexpressed psychic energy can cross the mind/body threshold and establish its presence in the form of bodily symptoms and illness.
Go to journal questions for physical ailments
Survivor to Thriver, Page 53
© 2007 THE MORRIS CENTER, Revised 11/06