Psychology, Science

When the body says no

There are many things – small details or obvious mistakes – that we completely ignore and might have something to say about our illnesses, or even play a decisive role in the onset of certain diseases. In his book, “When the body says no”, Gabor Maté explains the critical role that one certain element plays in or lives, what it means and how badly it can actually affect us – stress, stress, stress.

First of all, a bit about the mind-body connection. As Gabor also states, there is no such thing as mind and body, since our mind is only an expression of the most complex organ on earth (or in the universe, who knows – hope not): the human brain. In the 17th century, philosopher René Decartes proposed an appealing problem, that of the mind and the brain being distinct. Nowadays it’s clear that this is scientifically incorrect, but for a long time even doctors have been reluctant in considering that the state of mind (in our case, of a stressed mind) can actually affect the body. But, as it turned out, a stressed mind means a stressed body.

That’s right, there is no mind without a brain. There also is no soul without a brain, since the mind and the soul are the same thing, but when we refer to it as soul it’s just so we can put emphasis on the feelings. Feelings that are mainly neurotransmitters flooding our neural circuits. Feelings that change depending on the way we (our brain) perceive different situations we find ourselves in. Gabor Maté talks about many diseases, serious affections such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cancer, scleroderma or even Alzheimer’s. The levels of stress experienced by his patients, presented in the essays of this book, are of great intensity, but I will explain what stress basically means and how it impacts us.

Stress happens when something is missing. Lack of safety, of control, of social interaction, of expression when it comes to negative emotions, loss, lack of ability to cope when the situation is more than we can take. Our emotional intelligence didn’t change much over time, so we feel things the way we did 200,000 years ago, when the first Homo sapiens started wondering around, scared of potential predators. We can say that the society we live in today evolved because of us, but without us. All this technology, the economic growth, capitalism, new jobs, new study areas, comprehension of our (insignificant) place in the universe, all of this is new for our brains. The simple fact that the words I’m writing right now will soon be read by people around the globe – it’s all insane and we don’t even think about it. That is why our brain cannot make any difference between us being attacked by an angry puma (our life is at risk) and us losing our job (our life is at risk). So the fight or flight mode is activated – hyperventilation, heart rate increased, pupils dilated (so we can see any potential threat), sweaty palms (in case we have to climb a tree if the puma/our boss is chasing us) and, most importantly, stress hormones. Cortisol.

Levels of stress vary, depending on how much certain events affect each of us. For example, I’m afraid of wasps. In the presence of a wasp (or even in the presence of an image of one, or a memory) my cortisol level will be much higher than the one of a person who doesn’t care about wasps. But that doesn’t mean one is weak for finding certain stuff more stressful. It’s just biochemistry. That’s how our bodies react. However, there is a more subtle kind of stress that most of us might not even notice, since we’ve got used to it in time – stress coming from schools, jobs – assignments, deadlines or a constant competition, because this is what the society taught us to value. “Being the best.” That’s the same as saying “being the most stressed.” Long periods of exposure to highly stressful situations lead to chronic stress.

But how does emotion affect stress? The stressor (being it physical or emotional) will be interpreted by the nervous system in order to create adequate changes in our bodies so that we are prepared to face the threat. The intensity of the stress response depends on the personality or the psychological state of the person exposed to a stressor. The hypothalamus – a part of our brain crucial in the regulation of basic functions – will tell the pituitary gland (small gland just below the hypothalamus) to tell the adrenals (small glands just above the kidneys) to prepare us for danger. So here, among other hormones, cortisol is also released. Cortisol decreases the effectiveness of the immune system. Immunity also plays a significant role in detecting and stopping the evolution of small tumors that can eventually turn into cancerous tissue. A poorly defended organism can also imply the perfect milieu for the onset of other diseases, such as MS or diabetes. This being considered for people who are predisposed to such diseases, of course.

What Gabor is trying to tell us is that stress is bad, especially if your organism is predisposed to certain illnesses. But that’s not the only case. We might not comprehend how destructive stress can actually be, until something hits us and we cannot find any clear cause or reason for it to happen. It is a mistake to underestimate stress, for it is there, it’s just chemistry. But once we acknowledge and become aware of our stressor, we can try to eliminate or reduce it, being it an abusive relationship, a highly competitive job, or even childhood trauma.

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