Gabor Mate points us to the connection between trauma and physical illness

In Gabor Mate’s new insightful book “The Myth of Normal” he holds up a mirror to our western culture and carefully shows us what is considered normal can be toxic, or at least detrimental to our well-being.  His book follows this theme in several dimensions of the human experience.  In this article I’ll be reflecting on the under-appreciated connection between psychological trauma and physical ailments that Gabor illuminates in part one of this five-part book.

Gabor a medical doctor and has no quarrel with the incredible advancements of western medicine.  His concern is what we called an ideological bent towards separating mind from body that reduces complex events to mere biology.  Without attending to both mind and body we miss an essential aspect of bringing people to wholeness and wellness.

In his book he takes pains to illuminate the link between psychological or emotional trauma and physical sickness.  Gabor defines trauma as “an inner injury, a lasting rupture or split with the self due to difficult or hurtful events.” While many can easily understand trauma as a result of something terrible happening to someone like walking in on a loved one who ended their life, or sustaining years of harmful abuse, there is another dynamic to trauma.  Trauma also occurs when we don’t get what we need.

I’ve observed this dynamic as a therapist.  Even though people can grow up with no lack of food, clothing, gifts, and birthday parties they enter adulthood with a deep sense of worthlessness.  It could be that one of their parents was an alcoholic, but a relatively peaceful one, spending nights watching TV with a drink in hand.  They may not have used violence or uttered a threatening word; they just weren’t there.  Without adequate nurture, someone to talk to, someone to hold them, kids have to make sense of why they are alone.  The easiest and most common person to blame is ourselves.  We are uncared for because there must be something wrong with us.  Our young souls are covered over with a thick layer of shame, a personal sense of unworthiness.

Trauma is often at the heart of our emotional distress.  The tender emotional wounds from childhood or the damage of acute adult stress are major factors in anxiety, stress, depression, addiction, anger suppression, and unwanted anger.  Soldering on with these conditions has a harmful impact on our bodies.  

Gabor Mate lists several studies that find a link between our mental and emotional health and our physical health.

Here are just 10 of the links listed in his book.

1) Women with cancer are often found to suffer from emotional suppression, avoidance of conflict, and rationalizing their emotions.

2) Women with breast cancer showed an “extreme suppression of anger and other feelings”

3) ALS patients are extraordinarily nice (implying their niceness is a product of anger suppression)

4) A study of men with cancer of the prostate found anger suppression was associated with weakening of the immune system

5) Parents who lost an adult son to accident or conflict had increased occurrences of certain cancers of the blood.

6) Grieving parents had double the risk of multiple sclerosis

7) Women with severe PTSD had twice the risk of ovarian cancer

8) The higher the resting activity of the part of the brain that regulates fear and aggression (amygdala) the greater the risk of heart ailments.

9) Men sexually abused as children had 3 times the rate of heart attacks.

10) Objective stress in kids is linked to obesity, insulin secretion and the function of their immune system.

Here is one telling quote

“If the nervous system is under fire, the result may show up as multiple sclerosis; if the gut, celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis; if the joints and connective tissues, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or scleroderma; if the skin, psoriasis or autoimmune eczema; if the pancreas, type 1 diabetes; if the lungs, pulmonary fibrosis; if the brain, perhaps Alzheimer’s. In many of these conditions, several regions of the body are affected at once. Chronic fatigue syndrome — also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) — which affects millions worldwide, is among the best known of the recent additions to this roster. (pg 70)”

Gabor suggests that we should look to see all the factors that lead to illness and health.  For far too long we have downplayed the connection between mental health and physical health.  Some conditions we assume are in our body, and if we can’t find the cause there, we shame people by saying “it’s all in your head” as if they are imagining their distress.  The source of distress can be found both in our mind and body, and both affect each other.

Gabor calls the medical profession to take full consideration of all the factors behind the illnesses and conditions they diagnose.  His insight is a compelling message to all of us to attend to both the maintenance of mental wellness and the importance of healing the trauma behind anxiety and fear, depression, addiction and problems with anger.