“When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.”- Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No
I think it’s common knowledge that stress takes its toll on the body and can cause chronic illness. Gabor Maté goes a step further in his analysis on stress’ impact on the body and looks in more depth into autoimmune diseases and how our reactions to life, as well as our upbringings, and our relationships with loved ones, might affect how our body reacts, for better or for worse. This book has a wealth of information that I feel should be essential reading.
Maté’s book was a wake up call in many ways. The author is a well-known and beloved Vancouver physician and he writes with such passion and understanding over the human body, illness and life experiences. The main issue Maté looks at is that of psychoneuroimmunology, the science of the interactions between the mind and the body. Basically, “our immune system does not exist in isolation from daily experience.” , and our emotions and physiology are connected. Doctors often ask for our symptoms but few really help us understand that our childhood, upbringing and other factors play a huge part in our health. Maté advocates for a more holistic approach to healthcare.
I found the real examples in this book very informative, and also very sad. There was the story of Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer. One of the things she said, which I’ll try my best to live by, goes as follows: “It is important to realize that you have to take care of yourself because you can’t take care of anybody else until you do.”
In addition to Radner, there were also analyses on Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Ronald Reagan, who Maté said wrote his autobiography with “emotional poverty, disguised by sentiment.” Emotions were a big part of this book, suppressed emotions being seen as unhealthy expression and aiding in stress:
” Emotions interpret the world for us. They have a signal function, telling us about our internal states as they are affected by input from the outside. Emotions are responses to present stimuli as filtered through the memory of past experience, and they anticipate the future based on our perception of the past.”
“Repressed anger will lead to disordered immunity. The inability to process and express feelings effectively, and the tendency to serve the needs of others before considering one’s own, are common patterns in people who develop chronic illness.”
I learned that perfectionism is harmful. I also learned that so many of us carry other people’s burdens and it can become crippling. I learned more about Alzheimer’s, cancer, dementia, .multiple sclerosis. and other diseases, and was impressed by how Maté managed to communicate what he believes to be the sources of these diseases without taking on an accusatory or judgmental tone. He has so much empathy, and what he does in his writing, as well as informing and guiding us to self-analyze, is helping us achieve self-acceptance and healing.
This book challenged me to take an honest look at myself, at my life, how I do things, and how I react to things.
Finally, a mantra for those of us who perhaps do too much: “I should be a guide, not a god.”