We often hear about public health crises related to poor diet, lack of exercise, and smoking. But what about chronic stress?
Canadian physician Gabor Maté studies the mind-body connection. He argues that chronic stress plays a big role in the development of disease.
It should come as no surprise that emotions can impact physical health. When we’re sad, we cry. When we’re embarrassed, we blush. When we’re nervous, we might have lumps in our throats or butterflies in our stomachs.
Clearly, our feelings aren’t just experienced in our heads.
When we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones impact our entire bodies. They stop digestion, suppress our immune systems, and mobilize energy to gear up for fight or flight.
This is extremely useful if you’re faced with a deadly physical threat, like a predator about to eat you. But it’s extremely harmful if your organs are bathed in stress hormones day after day after day. It causes disease.
Many of us are so used to living like this that we think it’s normal. We interpret the lack of stress as “boredom,” and we often find it intolerable.
In our society, those who go go go are applauded. Self-care is discouraged. Taking some time off to recharge is seen as indulgent and lazy, rather than responsible and healthy.
According to Maté, how we handle our emotions is a key indicator of health. Healthy individuals consciously feel angry when they’re violated in some way—and they react assertively to protect themselves.
But many of us bottle up our feelings instead. “It takes tremendous energy to suppress emotions,” Maté observes. “The act itself is stress producing.”
That behavior can go all the way back to childhood. “Don’t cry,” parents might tell children. Perhaps they even shame the child for crying, or threaten to give them “something to cry about” if they don’t stop. So kids learn to bury emotion.
“When you’re a child and your parents can’t handle your feelings,” Maté explains, “you learn to suppress them to maintain your relationship with your parents. But what was a coping response in the child becomes a source of illness in the adult.”
On a physiological level, in other words, we don’t cease to feel the emotions we bury. Hormones are still released—only now the growing child or adult is unaware of it. This can lead not only to health problems, but to people taking advantage of them—even violating them—because they don’t know when to trust their own anger or fear.
I’ve suffered chronic health problems since age 14, despite never smoking or indulging other obvious no-nos. Improving my diet and exercising regularly never helped. I saw specialist after specialist with no progress whatsoever.
But maybe the problem wasn’t with my body alone.
In the past year, with the help of therapy, I’ve learned how to cry again. I’ve gotten the hang of getting angry again. And I’ve watched my physical health improve at long last.
The road I’ve taken isn’t easy. It’s painful. I’m feeling all of the repressed anger, fear, and sadness stored in my body in order to finally let it go. It’s overwhelming.
But it’s also the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done. There’s a richer, healthier, happier life waiting for me on the other side.
Why did it take two decades of searching to find the answer? Why isn’t this common knowledge among all physicians, or publicized as widely as recommendations about diet and exercise?
If we wish to become a healthier society, we can’t have tunnel vision that only focuses on fat, calories, or smoking. Nor should we shame those who express emotion or practice self-care. As Maté’s work shows—and as I can tell you firsthand—our minds and bodies aren’t as separate as we think they are.
Jill Richardson is a columnist for OtherWords and author of “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.” This article was originally published on OtherWords.