When we are unable to say no, our bodies may say it for us

Part 1: Review of When the Body Says No, The Cost of Hidden Stress

When I started reading this book, I immediately had to put it down (well, almost). What did me in was the section where Dr. Gabor Maté talks about the association between psychological stress and increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS). Developing MS is somewhat of a fear of mine. Not because it runs in my family, but because it is lifelong and there is currently no cure. I know, I know, there are a lot of other conditions out there with a similar prognosis, but for some reason, this chronic disease affects me like no other. Yet, I did manage to pick it up again (it was the book club book for May…but I did actually want to read it) and I’m glad I did.

The book is basically a collection of stories interspersed with scientific literature. Maté, a former palliative care doctor from Vancouver, shares both snippets of his personal story and the stories of his former patients. 

He separates the book into diseases: various autoimmune disorders – scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis (MS), various forms of cancer, and dementia. Within each section of disease, he tells the story of a patient or a collection of patients. More specifically, he talks about their childhood experiences.

At the beginning, he tells the story of Mary. Diagnosed with scleroderma, Mary opens up to Maté in an hour-long session (he was once operating as a family physician prior to palliative care work).

“Mary had been abused as a child, abandoned and shuttled from one foster home to another. She recalled huddling in the attic at the age of seven, cradling her younger sisters in her arms, while her drunken foster parents fought and yelled below…She had never revealed these traumas before, not even to her husband of 20 years.”

Through discussion, Mary reveals that she is someone incapable of saying ‘no’, “compulsively taking responsibility for the needs of others”.  At a young age, Mary “had learned not to express her feelings about anything to anyone, including herself”.

So what’s the link between Mary’s psychological trauma and her disease? Maté states, “perhaps her body was doing what her mind couldn’t: throwing off the relentless expectation that had been first imposed on the child and now was self-imposed in the adult – placing others above herself”. He states that “when we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us”.

There are many more stories like Mary’s, albeit with slight variation in childhood experience and disease. What’s interesting, is that many of the childhoods and adult experiences that were shared with Maté were not what we would typically classify as traumatic. There were many men and women who had never experienced physical, sexual or verbal abuse. In fact, many recounted having happy childhoods. This is what confused me the most. Many of the people interviewed, many dying of a chronic condition, recalled childhoods that were relatively alright.

So what’s the deal?

Maté believes (through case study and growing literature) that many of us aren’t aware of our inner state. He states, “What has happened is that we have lost touch with the gut feelings designed to be out warning system. The body mounts a stress response, but the mind is unaware of the threat”.

But how does this happen? How do we become disconnected? And what’s this got to do with our childhood experience?

Tune in on Wednesday for my next post to find out…



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