I have long been convinced of the link between traumatic experiences, especially in childhood, and physical ailments such as arthritis, eczema, digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome and a whole host of other illnesses. So I found Dr Gabor Maté’s book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, to be intriguing.
Dr Maté (a physician working in palliative care and later with addiction in Canada) makes a strong, evidence-based case for the ways in which traumatic or stressful experiences in childhood and throughout our lives repeatedly trigger the stress response in our brain, which causes a cascade of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, as well as many other changes in the brain and body. This is meant to be an urgent, life-saving response to threats such as predatory animals or aggressive tribes, which were the life-or-death threats humans faced for much of our evolutionary history (which is when our brains were, to a large extent, formed).
But when, say, you have a highly critical parent, putting you down every day throughout your childhood; you suffer abuse or neglect; or are unlucky enough to be raised in a high-conflict family, where the parents are always at each other’s throats, your stress response is being triggered, repeatedly, which the body is not designed to cope with. Sadly, when combined with your particular genetic makeup, this can make you more vulnerable to a whole host of physical illnesses, including the big, scary ones like cancer, dementia or heart disease; and autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis (MS) or rheumatoid arthritis.
None of this is your fault
Of course, it’s really important to emphasise that this is not your fault in any way, or that – if you are ill now – you somehow brought this illness upon yourself. Dr Maté goes to great pains to explain that it’s the result of these repeated stressors impacting your growing brain and body, which may cause problems in later life. Nobody chooses to have a harsh, critical parent, or to suffer emotional neglect.
But what it does make crystal-clear to me is that, if you have had a highly stressful childhood, it is so important to get psychological help from someone like me (or any other well-trained therapist practising an effective, evidence-based form of therapy). Because none of this is fixed or irreversible – healing those wounds from childhood, learning to feel and healthily release your emotions, becoming less self-critical, more assertive and kinder/more compassionate to yourself… these are all the magic ingredients which form the medicine that combats the effects of your long-term stress.