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  • Writer's pictureKim Smolders

When The Body Says No by Gabor Maté.

I recently read Gabor Maté's book When The Body Says No: The Hidden Costs of Stress, and it was a truly inspirational read. In fact, I think it was one of the most powerful books I have read to date. It offers the kind of transformative insights that promote physical and emotional self-awareness.

In it, Gabor Maté, a renowned addiction expert, palliative care specialist and psychotherapist, explores the intimate and undervalued connection between mind, body and soul. Through casestudies from his own work with patients and the analysis of more famous examples, he illustrates masterfully and empathetically the correlation between disease and stress and trauma caused by emotional and psychosocial factors.

Conscious & unconscious stress.

According to Gabor, stress is "a complicated cascade of physical and biochemical responses, triggered by powerful emotional stimuli, whether conscious or unconscious. It is more than a subjective feeling, but a set of physiological effects within the body". This is also known as the 'fight-or-flight' response - cortisol and epinephrin are released, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten and blood pressure rises. There are moments in life when we know we are stressed - we have a deadline at work, we have an argument with someone we love dearly, or we have to avoid a car we did not see coming as we cross the road for example. All these acute stressors our body can manage and handle, and once these have passed, the body can go back to being in a more balanced state of homeostasis.

When the body does not bounce back into homeostasis and stress levels remain elevated, the body is chronically stressed. This will disrupt nearly every system in your body, but especially the adrenal system, immune system and digestive system. The immune system is suppressed, your digestive and reproductive systems are dysregulated, there is an increased risk of diabetes, heart attack and stroke and the aging process is accelerated. Your body is not in a healing state, but a confused and destructive state. We want to avoid being in a state of stress as much as we can.

A key part of Gabor's explanation of stress is the word unconscious. We live in a world where a lot of the time, we are not consciously aware that we are stressed, but internally on a deeply emotional and physical level, the body feels stressed and is reacting accordingly. Stress can be triggered by physical damage or emotional trauma, past, present or future, or the mere threat thereof and pushes the body into a state of disharmony and threatened homeostasis. The body will try for the longest time to keep homeostasis, but at some point, it is unable to. This is when diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and heart conditions occur.

The mind-body connection.

For the longest time, the Western medical world has been reluctant to acknowledge the link between the body and the mind. Gabor however presents powerful proof that there is very strong mind-body connection that we can no longer ignore. Understanding the intricate balance of the relationships between the behaviour of our cells, our physiological state, psychological dynamics and emotional environment is key to our health. Through the vagus nerve, your brain and the rest of your tissues and organs are intimately connected, creating a two-way relationship between all of these.

Psychological influences make a decisive biological contribution to the onset of malignant diseases through the interconnections linking the components of the body's stress apparatus, the nerves, hormonal glands, immune system and brain centres where the emotions are. Repressed emotions, or even just the internal stress of having to adjust oneself to somebody else or to the ever increasing and unattainable demands of today's society, is more destructive physically and mentally than we are aware of. Physically we first feel light pain, fatigue and aches, which over time become more profound and turn into autoimmune and more serious illnesses. Mentally, high levels of chronic stress can decrease the size of the hippocampus, your learning and memory centre in the brain, and increase the size of the amygdala, the part responsible for the flight-or-light response. This will interfere with your concentration levels, clarity of thinking, memory capability and sleep.

The importance of human connection.

Gabor Maté

Your interactions with other human beings affect our biological systems and functioning in myriad and subtle ways almost every moment of our lives. Emotional intimacy is a psychological and biological necessity. Our survival as a human being is contingent on strong emotional connections with family and your tribe, connections that are authentic, balanced and respective of our own individual boundaries. This is why it is so important to surround ourselves with people that allow and support us to be the best versions of ourselves in ways enhanced by love and a healthy attachment.

The importance of attachment relationships and emotional connection starts at birth and continue to be important through adult life. Babies look to their caregiver(s) to be the biological regulators of their physiological and emotional systems as they are not able to do this on their own. Parental nurture, stability and love is thus a biological necessity and an indispensable requirement of healthy human brain development at an early age. And in adulthood, our biological responses to environmental challenges are profoundly influenced by context, our cultural and social environment and by the set of intimate relationships that connect us.


Epigenetics is the relatively new field of study that has proven that our genes are turned on or off by our environment, and that they are not set in stone as was always previously assumed. The greatest influences on human development, health and behaviour are those of the nurturing physical, psychological and emotional environment, which includes our diet, exercise routine, sleep patterns, stress levels, exposure to toxins, relationships and family. These environmental influences affect our cells at a molecular and cellular level, and our early experiences condition the body's stance to the world as well as a person's unconscious beliefs which will affect our health, behaviour and stress response in adulthood.

Healing is possible.

A biopsychosocial model of health needs to be adapted in order to help individuals heal most deeply. There are many factors and processes that work together in the formation of disease or creation of health, and addressing as many of these as possible is key.

In order to heal, we need to tap into our awareness, our authentic self, and 'know again' our lives, rethinking our own biology of belief. Developing the courage to be honest with yourself and think negatively in order to reach genuine positive thinking empowers us to know that we have nothing to fear from the truth. It is also important to know there are things you can influence, and things you can not influence and finding the balance and harmony in this. The seven crucial A's of healing can be summarised as

  • Acceptance: a compassionate willingness to recognise and accept how things, and you, are

  • Awareness: reclaiming our lost capacity for emotional truth recognition and listening to our bodily signals

  • Anger: allow for the expressions of emotions in a healthy way, respecting your boundaries as well as those of others

  • Autonomy: setting your own boundaries and maintaining an internal centre of control

  • Attachment: genuine emotional connections and support are crucial to healing

  • Assertion: the statement of being; a declaration to ourselves and the world that we are and that we are who we are

  • Affirmation: making positive statements, as what you think you will feel and become

Health rests on the body, the psyche and spiritual connection. Ignoring any of these will ultimately lead to illness and disease.


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