The Stress Disease Connection

This is an important post. It is about how our response to stress learned in childhood can result in chronic disease. We’ve all heard how stress can kill you, but until I was exposed to the work of Dr. Gabor Maté, I never fully grasped just how just how much we now know about the role of stress in disease. It is huge.

Perfect Health Diet recently linked to the first part of the lecture Bio-Psychosocial View on Neuro Degenerative Diseases. I found the second part, even though these videos are unlisted, which makes me think they might get taken down at some point. I highly encourage you to watch both. There are some sound issues with the second part, but it is still valuable.

Part 1 (53:41)

Part 2 (56:07)

After watching the above videos, I read the doctor’s book When the Body Says No.

When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection
When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Maté

Two Kinds of Stress

When we think about stress, we think about our response to events that disturb us. Someone cuts us off in traffic or we have a personal conflict. So when we engage in stress management strategies, we are working on responses to these events. But stress can come not only from explicit memories but implicit memories. Implicit memories are often those events that happen in childhood where we can’t recall the event, but we can recall the emotion. What happens in our childhood sets us up for chronic illness later.

Children need attachment and they need to be themselves. Dr. Maté calls it being authentic and for survival purposes, attachment will always trump authenticity. When children are trained to suppress their emotions for their survival, it sets them up for much higher rates of illness later on. He further states that children are not born with a personality, but develop one as a coping strategy.

The psychology of children is programmed by the emotional states of their parents.

Dr. Maté calls this the story of chronic illness. What diseases are affected by stress from our childhood?

  • Cancer
  • Neurological
  • Auto-immune
  • Lupus
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Chronic Fatigue

Dr. Maté discusses how people with MS universally share a trait in common in that they can’t say no. They place the emotional well being of others above their own. And as the title of his book says – when you don’t know how to say no, the body will say it for you. Children that are abused have a 50% higher risk of cancer. That is huge! Swapping out the canola oil for coconut oil is trivial by comparison.

Risk Factors in the Stress Disease Connection

Dr. Maté lists a few personality types that are at risk.

  • Those with a compulsive regard for the emotional needs of others while ignoring their own emotional needs.
  • Those with a rigid and compulsive identification with duty, role, and responsibility while ignoring their own needs.
  • Those that repress anger.
  • Those that feel the need to never disappoint anyone.

Stress triggers include:

  • Uncertainty
  • Lack of information
  • Loss of control
  • Conflict you can’t handle
  • Loss of something you perceive you need (attachment)

The final chapter of When the Body Says No provides seven strategies for addressing the stresses that lead to chronic illness. I highly recommend this book. It has really helped me understand how my own responses to stress were molded by situations that happened very early in my life. The most important lesson I got from his work is that you can only manage the stress you are aware of. Since many of us will not recall the stressful events that happened during our childhood, Dr. Maté teaches that the details of what happened to us aren’t important. What is important is recognizing our reaction to stress and responding in an authentic and compassionate manner.


Add yours

  1. canadian nomad

    Dec 8, 2012 — 7:51 pm

    here’s a random thought trail provoked by reading this article, apologies if I’m a bit off topic to start, I’ll get on topic … I was just reading back some of your older posts, including 8 tips for not getting sick, and the first two were about not touching your face and washing hands like a surgeon … in a sense this seemed to fly in the face of building resiliency that you elaborated on in your post about healthy vs resilient … I’ve always believed in the power of my immune system and I’m pretty confident that my strong mental belief translates into a stronger physical immune system … I also believe that we will die of over-sterilization before we die from exposure …

    getting to where I’m trying to be, I suppose I’m thinking, I’ve never actually worried too much about exposure in public (other than hospitals and old folks homes) because I believe in the power of my immune system and I believe exposure develops immunity without sickness in a healthy individual … and I would certainly avoid anti-bacterial stuff like the plague (except in a hospital or old folks home) and I think I heard that up to 80% of our immune system resides in our gut (go bacteria and fermented foods!!) … get lots of sleep, don’t over-exert yourself (marathoners and ironmen die young or get degenerative brain diseases) … in any case, I visualize my immune system as a rhino on steroids, and so I don’t let that stress me 🙂 …

    anyway, some friends of mine from growing up had a mother who obsessed about being clean and washing hands, and I think this has carried over into their adulthood, where they obsess about these things, and yet they are sick all the time … my parents let me eat dirt and veggies from our garden, and this relaxed mindset might have carried into adulthood …

    more recently I survived an attempted murder (robbery gone wrong, I was in the wrong place and the wrong time) but the stress of it caused me to eat everything in sight while struggling with rage … I ballooned to 286lbs and started getting adult onset arthritis … a year later and 60lbs lighter, I’ve forgiven my attackers and taken up deep breathing for 10 minutes a day … my lesson, by holding onto negative emotions, I was giving up control and allowing them to hold power over me and I realized I had to take control back and resume positive living … recognizing our stress response and understanding why it happens allows us to retake control … I also allowed myself to cry when I needed to (men need to learn its acceptable sometimes) and I think I’m much stronger for it

  2. @canadian nomad – Yeah, that old post. I’ve completely changed my opinion on that one. When you have 7 years of content, that happens. Maybe I’ll do an updated immune system post at some point.

    Wow, sorry to hear about the robbery and how the stress caused weight gain. In your case, the memory of the stressful event was explicit. Glad you were able to drop the excess weight.

  3. I got this out of the library today, and will give it a read. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Ann Rosen Korman

    Dec 9, 2012 — 1:16 pm

    Love this post MAS! This is such important information!!!
    I will try to blog on it as well.. Stress is effecting every aspect of our lives. People will always have stress but they do not have to suffer!! We need to learn how to manage our stress.

    in grace!!!

  5. Would love to hear your thoughts on what you learn are some solutions to managing stress from this books perspective. How do you change responses that were wired from so young. Which are then compounded by life events and choices. Albert Ellis writings hav had a profound effect on me in the way I now interpret things that happen. If you can calm you emotional and mental responses you can soothe your body too.

  6. @Pauline – This information is very new to me. It is the side of stress than I was unaware even existed. I’m not an expert, but I think recognizing our own character and how we respond to situations is the first step.

    For me, I see the 4th personality risk as the one that most applies to me. Thinking back to my childhood, it all makes sense. So recognizing it is the first step. When I see this behavior surface in my adult self, I can now choose to address it as an adult and not as a child who needs adults for survival.

  7. Ah, yes anger is an interesting emotion. I have no problem expressing anger its brief and I can recover quickly. With Ellis’ writing I am finding underneath that anger is often an irrational belief, ie I can’t stand this, it should not be this way! If I can soothe that emotion or thought, then the anger often dissipates and has no need to be expressed,for me its often a cover for either some sadness, disappointment or frustration. Ellis speaks of a low frustration tolerance and teaches how to work with that in yourself. Stress for me is around feeling other’s suffering too much, i have always wondered why I am like that, its almost like I have ‘no skin’ and have to work at not plugging in to that suffering/compassion energy too much, learn to switch off. I can see how this was set up early in my childhood by the stresses my parents had when I was young and I was very tuned in to them. So that helps me understand and see why my brain is wired like this, and I have also only recently learnt the pivotal role of adrenal and cortisol in stress, so I find this fascinating.

  8. Never to disappoint anyone is an interesting guiding principle or philosophy. The down side is that there are always going to be people who approve or disapprove of your behaviour or attitude. The more connections you form in life, the more diversity. At some point I discovered that I can’t please even one person all the time, so I am more allowing of others and myself now. I think thanks have to go to Albert Ellis for his foundational thoughts on unconditional self acceptance and other acceptance. This is a groundbreaking belief, because you may dislike people’s behaviour or beliefs but deeply accept them as human beings nonetheless. And when you apply this to yourself it shifts your judgements and criticism to one of unconditional positive regard. That brings with a deep peace, and some mental emotional space to work on changing your beliefs or behavours.

  9. Hi MAS,

    Nice post!

    At some other videos (I think is part 2 actually) Gabor recommends a book for treating stress.

    Its called “The Presence Process” by Michael Brown. He praises it as the only book he would recommend to diminish stress.

    It’s a 10 week process that deals with the way we are interacting with our emotions.

    I’m on week 6 and I can only say that its been a marvelous journey and definitely one big eye opener.

    Hope you have the time to read it and post a review!

  10. @Jorge – I absolutely plan to read The Presence Process, but not yet. My reading list is massive right now.

  11. I love Dr Gabor Mate’s openness about his own addictive behaviour. Like him I buy books often and some of them I read. I must go back and read Presence which I bought in 2010 on a visit home to South Africa, I remember picking it up in a bookshop and been touched by it immediately.

  12. I just finished reading it. Very well written, and compassionate. I remember him now as the author of a book on addiction that was reviewed in Vancouver while I was living there and saying that we could eliminate most addiction in a couple of generations with better parenting. I was sold.

    I find it interesting that an internet friend of mine who comes across as a type C and has tried to kill herself numerous times insists she is really very angry when I’ve only heard her express it twice, and not very effectively either time. Usually she’s passive and weak sounding. It makes me wonder whether perhaps I am also less assertive than I think I am.

    At any rate, the only illness in the book I have to deal with currently is IBS, and I think I’m making progress on that one. I was surprised he said people with IBS *think* they’re experiencing bloating. I thought everyone actually did bloat up, like I do, and have to loosen their clothes. So is there a difference between IBS and food intolerances? I thought they were the same thing. :s

  13. @Anemone – Your story about IBS made me think of someone I know that carries a lot of stress and has some auto-immune issues as well. makes me wonder if one fixed their Type C personality – would they also fix or at least reduce their food intolerances?

  14. I get confused about that. One the one hand, miraculous healing does sometimes occur when you clear up the emotional blocks. On the other hand, if you don’t have lactase, you don’t have lactase, right? (Or whatever enzymes are involved.) At one extreme, you don’t need a restricted diet once you clear your emotional blocks, which would be cool. At the other extreme, it doesn’t matter how healthy you are, you still have intolerances (or allergies). Which is correct? Both? Only one? Stress can make digestion more difficult, so how do you tell if it was difficult to begin with or not?

    The description of IBS in the book didn’t quite match my experience so I looked it up. I do match the symptoms of IBS online, but apparently IBS is not the same as lactose intolerance or celiac disease or fructose malabsorption, which can cause the same symptoms. So are food intolerances autoimmune problems or something else? Or does it depend? The more I think about it, the more confused I get (because I really really really badly want to clear up my food intolerances). Which adds to the stress. More research needed, I guess.

  15. @Anemone I suggest you read the book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. It shows how stress can reduce digestion. Also you might want to try food rotation diet.

    New Study Shows Rotation Diet Relieves Irritable Bowel Syndrome
    (link removed – pay wall)

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