When the Body Says No | Gabor Maté

Summary of: When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection
By: Gabor Maté


Are you aware that the leading risk factor for heart disease is job strain? Contrary to popular belief, the mind’s inner workings have a significant impact on the body. The book ‘When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection’ by Gabor Maté challenges the prevailing theory of mind-body dualism in medicine, opting instead for psychoneuroimmunology – the study of connections between physical and mental health. This book summary delves into this fascinating field, elaborating how our daily experiences and stress can affect the immune system, and how stressors can cause chronic illness. It also explores how stress confuses the body, causing it to attack itself, and the role environmental factors and destructive coping styles play in the onset of disease.

The Hidden Link Between Emotions and Physical Health

Heart Disease and Other Health Conditions, risk factors of Job Strain, Emotions are the Root of Chronic Illness

Do you believe that emotions are connected to our physical health? For years, doctors have followed the principle of mind-body dualism that the body and mind function independently of each other. However, mounting evidence shows that this concept is flawed, and that a new field of medicine called psychoneuroimmunology is arising that studies the direct link between emotions and physiology.

Studies have shown that our daily experiences and stresses can affect the immune system significantly, leading to chronic illnesses. Even the most common health condition in the world, heart disease, is primarily caused by job strain and work-related stress. In fact, work stress is a major contributor to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels that cause heart disease. While high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking remain crucial factors too, work-related stress surpasses them all.

Emotions are electrical, chemical, and hormonal discharges from the nervous system, and they can significantly impact the functioning of our major organs and immune defenses. This implies that emotions can cause chronic illness like autoimmune disease, as seen in Mary’s case. Mary, who has scleroderma, an autoimmune disorder causing stiffness in different tissues of the body, had a history of extreme emotional repression. This emotional repression could have disarmed Mary’s immune system, making her vulnerable to the ravages of scleroderma.

Therefore, it isn’t just about treating physical symptoms, but it’s also essential to pay attention to our mental and emotional well-being. The connection between psychoneuroimmunology and health means that our happiness and well-being are crucial for our overall well-being. Hence, ensuring that our emotions and physical health are in harmony is as vital as avoiding high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other risk factors for heart disease and chronic illness.

The Effects of Stress on the Body

Stress is a perceived threat that affects the body’s hormonal, immune, and digestive systems. The brain’s processing system assigns meaning to stressors, making each person’s experience unique. While cortisol helps us survive short-term stress, chronic stress can harm the body by raising blood pressure and damaging the heart. Studies show that chronic stress can also suppress NK cell functioning, slowing wound healing and reducing responsiveness to immunization against diseases like influenza.

The Link between Stress and Autoimmune Diseases

Rachel’s story highlights how stress confuses the body, causing it to attack itself. Research suggests that emotional repression and stress can initiate immune reactivity in the body, leading to autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Many people with autoimmune diseases struggle to establish boundaries, putting others’ needs before their own and ultimately harming their immune systems. A study done in 1965 found that emotional repression and stress could trigger immune reactivity and increase the risk of developing autoimmune diseases.

Coping Style and Disease

Learned helplessness is a common coping style that leads to inaction in stressful situations. Environmental factors and destructive coping styles can trigger the onset of disease, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). In Natalie’s case, her learned helplessness in coping with her husband’s transgressions contributed to her developing MS. Experts believe that stressful events trigger diseases, and patients who suffer from extreme stress are more likely to exacerbate their symptoms. Therefore, it’s crucial to address coping style as it can lead to repressed emotions and a weakened immune system.

The Brain-Gut Connection

Our gut and brain are in constant communication. Traumatic events can oversensitize the neurological communication channel, altering our perception of physiological pain. This characteristic is particularly apparent in people with functional disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS patients have higher incidence rates of sexual and physical abuse. A study shows that people with functional disorders exhibit hypersensitivity to colon distension and increased activation of the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain stores emotional memories and helps us interpret present stimuli based on past experiences. Psychological intervention could be effective in treating functional disorders. Group therapy sessions that teach better behavioral coping strategies can help reduce abdominal complaints in IBS patients, even two years later.

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