If you asked a physician whether someone’s mental and emotional wellbeing will affect their physical wellbeing, the vast majority would say they are definitely linked. Yet many people today are surprised to discover that their mental health negatively impacts their physical health.
This is because at some point it seems mental health and physical health became separated. For instance, if you read a newspaper’s health section most only write about physical conditions with barely a word on how emotional states can lead to physical problems.
Perhaps one reason is that it’s usually not an overnight consequence. But as an example it is obvious that a decade of being in a stressed condition day after day is going to eventually cause physical problems, such as a heart condition.
An increasing number of experts such as Dr Gabor Maté are also saying how our modern-day Western system plays its part. Yet if those in power acknowledged this, there would most likely be public demands to drastically change the present system.
When The Body Says No
In Dr Maté’s When The Body Says No, one of the world’s bestselling books on recovery, he describes how emotional stress is a major cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases.
He writes about how our brain and body systems that process emotions are closely linked with our nervous system and our hormonal network. Even more so, they are intimately connected to our immune system.
“It’s very tricky to speak about something like ’cause’ without sounding like I’m personalizing the issue, or pointing the finger – ‘you brought this on yourself’,” says Dr Maté. “That’s not at all what I’m saying.
“What I am saying is that through no conscious will of your own, and for perfectly understandable reasons that had to do with your own emotional survival and thus were valid at the time, you have developed a personality style that has turned out to be bad for your health in the long run.”
Childhood shapes personalities
He continues to explain that the need to take on other people’s problems as their own, the inability of somebody to say no, the driven need to continually be “nice”, “helpful”, “positive” or never “rock the boat” – even if that means suppressing their own emotions – these aspects that are seen as someone’s character traits are nearly always responses to childhood situations and experiences. How we cope with and survive our childhood shapes our personalities.
“It’s not a conscious choice; it’s more an automatic decision the young self makes to stay afloat in stressful emotional waters,” explains Dr Maté. “Over time, if those patterns get reinforced and become rigid parts of the personality and remain unexamined, they can have detrimental effects on immune system functioning, even to the point of serious illness.”
Dr Maté sees that these initially emerge as stress responses. But over time they become extremely stressful to mind and body, which are “inseparable”.
Our ancestors from previous centuries seemed to know this: that how we think, and consequently how we are emotionally, has a huge influence . This is revealed in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth when the doctor is called to treat Lady Macbeth. He says he cannot help her because her condition is caused by herself and so needs to be fixed by herself.
This knowledge of the immense power of our mind is also evident in religious literature. In the Bible it says: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…” Then in the ancient Hindu book the Bhagavad Gita it states: “You are what you believe in. You become that which you believe you can become.”
Perhaps now, with esteemed medical experts such as Dr Maté speaking about the “inseparable” connection between mind and body we are once again reaching this realization – how we think affects how we are emotionally and that in turn affects us physically.
Major physical problems due to mental health illness
Mental health conditions such as depression, stress and anxiety can lead to many physical symptoms, including:
- Stomach pain
- Muscle soreness
- Muscle tension
- Vision problems
- Hair loss
- Shakes and tremor
- Erectile problems
- Menstrual irregularities
- Weakened immune system
- Insomnia and sleep problems (too much or too little)
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Breathing problems
- Psoriasis and other skin problems
- General aches and pains
- Increased pain sensitivity
- High blood pressure
- Heart problems
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Are physical illnesses teaching us something vital?
“When someone comes to a doctor with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s not enough that they get prescribed an anti-inflammatory,” says Dr Maté. “They should also be engaged in a conversation about the life stresses that triggered the episode of inflammation, as invariably turns out to be the case.”
He says that the fundamental aim is to help people gain the ability to say no to unwanted stress. This is so their body doesn’t end up having to say it for them in the form of a physical illness.
Dr Maté continues: “It’s my belief that diseases like cancer, ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis], multiple sclerosis and so on, that cause so much suffering for people, all come along to teach something – and that if the lesson is learned, with compassion for oneself, then the ‘teacher’ has done its job and can then take a hike.
“That’s not a guarantee, but I’ve seen many examples of people who’ve taken on their illnesses in this way and either survived or far outlived what medical science would have predicted, or at least greatly improved their own quality of life while alive. Research literature confirms this.”
He believes that sometimes it takes a calamity to realize once more what’s really important in life. For some this is such as when someone they love dies.
Maté says we need to consider that a physical disease has in fact come along to bring us back to our true selves. Indeed, many people do move into recovery after a major health scare or the loss of a loved one in this way.
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