I was inspired to write about this book today not only because of Gabor’s succinct description and definition of stress and its effect on the body but, perhaps most especially, because of his statements on the inconsistencies in medical research and contradictory opinions about what the findings mean. Even more specifically, it is his chapter on the multiple factors involved in the origins of breast cancer that had me run to my computer to document my thoughts.
Cancer is one of the primary illnesses experienced by humans (and some non-humans as well) around the world…and especially in cultures of affluence. This insidious disease has grown exponentially around the world (as it does in our own bodies) in spite of the millions of dollars pumped into the cancer research industry. Even more insidious is the seemingly purposeful spreading of misinformation regarding the origins and successful treatment of cancer that has so many people supporting fund-raising efforts that, although administered at the ground-level by very well-meaning and compassionate individuals, largely finance reactive fighting of disease rather than supporting the body’s innate abilities to prevent, sustain and reclaim health.
I’m often perceived as a pariah when I make these statements. I’ve come to terms with that because I’d rather be one of the many individuals who are pointing upstream at the source of the problem, rather than one of the scores of individuals who are spending precious energy sticking their fingers in the almost infinite cracks in the eroding dam downstream. Yes, sometimes it feels a lot like being in a nightmare where I am the only one who see’s imminent danger and is shouting out to people to ‘LOOK OUT!’ only to have them turn away, incapable of hearing or recognizing the imminent disaster.
The Western medical research industry receives and then spends millions of dollars cooking up new toxic cocktails that will kill off cancer cells for good while paradoxically also killing off many, if not all, of the ‘natural killer’ (NK) cells that our bodies create and that are designed to attack and destroy malignant cell growth in our bodies. This same research industry perpetuates the myth that chronic stress and our emotional reactions to it do not play an important role in the creation of cancer but that hormones and genetics are the most critical factors. The reason why statements such as these are so insidious is because they are partially true…but mostly false. They are insidious because the general public hands over its power to perceived authorities in lieu of conducting its own research and developing its own understanding (and to be fair, many of us are not research scientists or have easy access to information that would allow us to make informed decisions). There is enough partial truth to the information that the masses, who are not well-versed in how their own bodies actually function, accept what they are told wholesale.
So, what does Gabor Mate say that inspires me to reach out to the cultural tribe? Based on research and on his own experience with the patients he sees, “Breast cancer patients often report that their doctors do no express an active interest in them as individuals or in the social and emotional context in which they live. The assumption is that these factors have no significant role in either the origins or the treatment of disease.”1 When asked about whether stress plays an important role in the onset of cancer, a Toronto doctor who had led a study of almost 400 women with a history of breast cancer – a study that cited 42% of the participants listed stress as causing the malignancy – stated “People think stress causes everything. The evidence for stress is pretty low. And the evidence for hormones and genetics is pretty high”2
This is one example of a partially true but mostly false statement being made by an individual in a position of authority and in whom patients place their trust. The partially true part of the statement is that hormones play an integral role in our physical, emotional and mental well-being. This is undisputed and there are scores of studies that support this statement. However, the mostly false part of her statement is that evidence for genetics is high…this is simply NOT TRUE.
Dr Mate reports that “a rich body of evidence, drawn from animal studies and human experience, supports…that emotional stress is a major contributing cause of breast malignancy” and that “only a small minority of women with breast cancer – about 7% - acquire the disease for genetic reasons.”3 He continues that even of this 7% who are ‘genetically predisposed’ to acquire cancer, “far from everyone with one of the three genes known to be associated with breast cancer will actually develop a malignant tumour. In the majority of women or men diagnosed with breast cancer, heredity makes little or not contribution.”4
So, at one end of the Toronto doctor’s statement, there is truth…and at the other end, misinformation. These causes the general populace to be confused and since we tend to hand our power over to perceived authorities, we buy into the medical model that insists that we can’t avoid cancer and the best solution is toxic cocktail intervention…which only puts more stress on the body and destroys the innate processes that are designed to keep us healthy.
Hormones are chemicals that are released or inhibited by the body and are often triggered by emotions (which are also chemical reactions) that arise from the experiences we have in our lives. When those experiences are ‘stressful’, the ‘stress response’ or ‘fight-or-flight response’ gets triggered in the body and causes a number of chemical and physiological changes to occur. The release of stress hormones, in reasonable amounts, prepares our body to ‘fight or flee’; however, if we experience unresolved stress or chronic stress and the hormonal/chemical changes continue, they can wreak havoc on our physical, emotional and mental well-being. For example, some of these chemical reactions, if left unmitigated, promote tumour growth and the development of cancer because they decrease the immune system’s ability to destroy malignant cells.
Dr Mate describes the interconnected relationship between our hormonal system, our mind and our emotions:
“The body’s hormonal system is inextricably linked with the brain centres where emotions are experienced and interpreted.” The hormonal system and emotional centres “are interconnected with the immune system and the nervous system. These are not four separate systems, but one super-system. It is impossible for any stressful stimulus…to act on only one part of [this] super-system.”5
He summarizes that “in most cases of breast cancer, the stresses are hidden and chronic. They stem from childhood experiences, early emotional programming and unconscious psychological coping styles. They accumulate over a lifetime to make someone susceptible to disease.”6 The direct effects of our emotional experiences on our health have been documented many times over the past 60 years; however, the medical industry that dictates how we address illness continues to dispute this by treating our bodies separately from our minds and emotions.
At this point, I think it would be helpful to clarify that there are different types of stress and that some stress is good for an organism. Periodic stress is a natural part of the natural world; however, unmitigated and chronic stress (although very common) is not natural. Stress makes itself visible not only in our emotional reaction to stressors but physically in our bodies as well by affecting “the brain, the hormones, the immune system and many other organs”7
Generally speaking, stress occurs “when the organism perceives a threat to its existence or well-being”8 whether that threat is real or not. The physiological changes that occur in our bodies when we perceive these threats to our physical, emotional or mental well-being are called the ‘stress response’. “The stress response can be set off by physical damage, either by infection or injury. It can also be triggered by emotional trauma or just by the threat of such trauma, even if purely imaginary…[and] outside conscious awareness.”9
The events, things or people that trigger the stress response are called stressors. Our nervous system, and particularly our brain, first experiences and then interprets the stressors based on what is happening in the present moment as well as based on past experiences. For example, if you had been bitten by a dog as a child, quite possibly you would become afraid of all dogs, regardless of their desire to bite you or not. The approach of a dog on the street, even a friendly one, might be perceived as a stressor that your nervous system would interpret as a threat to your physical well-being and would then trigger the stress response in your body. If you had not experienced being bitten by a dog but, rather, had a wonderful dog in your life as a child, you would react to the approach of a friendly dog very differently.
The stress response increases production of certain hormones that are essentially chemicals. The primary stress-produced hormone/chemical is called ‘cortisol’ which affects almost every part of our body. Produced in reasonable amounts, cortisol can help us to manage acute stress (one-time stress events that are resolved within a reasonable period of time and are not repetitive vs. repetitive and unresolved stress or chronic stress). However, too much cortisol production can have serious repercussions, such as excessive thinning of bone tissue. Chronic stress triggers other reactions in our bodies that, unresolved, can and do produce harm and permanent damage. For example, if the hormone cortisol is repeatedly running through our body systems, it can destroy tissues and it is tissues that make up all of our organs and body systems. If the hormone adrenalin (also produced by the stress response) is constantly pouring through our body, it can raise blood pressure to dangerous levels that can damage the heart. Chronic stress also severely limits or impairs immune system functioning to the point where the ‘natural killer’ cells (NK) that are designed to target and destroy malignant cells in the body are suppressed and so cannot perform this function properly. The higher levels of cortisol produced during the stress response also inhibit the function of inflammatory cells involved in tissue healing. One of the glands involved in stress management, the hypothalamus, is intimately linked with the parts of our brain that process emotions. And because emotions have a “direct effect on the immune system and on other organs…stress affects and involves virtually every tissue in the body”.10
The stress reaction essentially looks like this: we perceive a physical, emotional or mental threat (real or imagined). The stress response, often called the ‘fight or flight response’ kicks in and our body diverts blood away from the internal organs to the muscles of the body (to help us to either fight or flee). The body also stores energy through sugar molecules and activates the immune system. In acute stress (one-time situations), the body is able to manage these changes within safe limits, especially after the stress event is over and the ‘relaxation response’ is allowed to take over.
While there are many different perceptions of what is a threat to well-being, “research…has identified three factors that universally lead to stress: uncertainty, the lack of information and the loss of control”11 In our ‘information abundant world’ this could be more specifically described as the lack of truthful and/or empowering information. Consider the world we live in: where global warming is manifested in sudden and forceful changes in weather patterns; where over-consumption of natural resources has put access to food and water at risk for many parts of the world already and promises to impact all of us in the forseeable future; and where familiar illnesses as well as new and more aggressive viruses continue to plague us. Although there is much beauty in the world and the future has yet to arrive, it is not unreasonable to say that we currently live in a time of incredible uncertainty and perceived loss of control. Instead of experiencing occasional bouts of acute stress, most organisms on this planet are being exposed to chronic stress.
So, why wouldn’t we just do what we need to do to either eliminate stressors or change our perception of them, if doing so could dramatically heal us from wounds and illness or prevent us from experiencing stress-related illness in the first place? Gabor states (and I whole-heartedly agree with him based on my own personal experience) that we are so out of touch with our gut feelings, we have become so disconnected from the messages of our bodies that we no longer can recognize when a stressor exists, let alone when it has become chronic. For many humans, this disconnection (which is innate at birth and in our early years) is conditioned out of us by parents who are too triggered by their child’s expressions of emotional discomfort because it jabs at the unhealed emotional wounds the parents have tried to bury within themselves). These same well-meaning adults either shame or reject such natural expressions by children who then learn to suppress feeling and expressing their emotions as they grow to become adults. When we become so disconnected from our natural emotions, we cannot identify when those emotions kick-start physiological changes within our bodies. This, in turn, impairs our ability to identify stressors (or ‘threats to well-being’) and impairs our ability to “defeat the perceived threat or to avoid it”).12
Dr. Mate states that the majority of the people he sees with cancer “have difficulty saying no…[and] tend to repress their anger”13 He notes that individuals with lung cancer tend to bottle up their emotions but smokers who are in touch with their emotions and especially allow themselves to feel and express anger are less likely to contract lung cancer. Time and again, he notes the connection between our thoughts, emotions and physical well-being and that “when we have been prevented from learning how to say no…our bodies may end up saying it for us.”14
This statement is supported by evidence from research in the area of psychoneuroimmunology that has determined “that an intimate relationship exists between the brain and the immune system…an individual’s emotional makeup, and the response to continued stress, may indeed be causative in many diseases that medicine treats but whose [origin] is not yet known”.15 He underscores the cultural malaise when he states: “Many of us live, if not alone, then in emotionally inadequate relationships that do not recognize or honour our deepest needs”16 and the emotions that are triggered but repressed disable the body’s defenses against disease.
Alarmingly many humans, so used to feeling stress as the ‘normal state of affairs’, do not perceive nor understand the consequences of unmitigated stress. Mate describes chronic stress as “the activation of the stress [response] over long periods of time when a person [or any part of nature] is exposed to stressors that can’t be escaped either because [we] do not recognize them or because [we] have no control over them.”17 This disconnection is not only the outcome of childhood conditioning. In the current digital age we are being distracted from a centered sense of self and from each other to the point where we are unable to acknowledge what is taking place in the here and now. This phenomenon is addressed in another must read titled “Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on our Brains” by Susan Greenfield.
In this alarming and very necessary book, Susan describes the effects that the average consumption (by youth) of 11 hours a day of entertainment media has on our brain, our bodies and our relationships. Quoting scores of studies on the effect of excessive use of digital technology on humans, Susan warns that the addictive nature of digital technology and its perpetuation of narcissistic behavior and attitudes is not only changing how our minds function (for the mind adapts to its changing environment) but is also (especially in the realm of online gaming) changing how we relate to ourselves and others, encouraging aggressive behavior and lack of empathy.
This disturbing lack of awareness of the impact of our actions on ourselves and others makes it less likely that we’re going to be able to recognize the effects of stress on our bodies because stress and it’s corresponding feelings of heightened anxiety will feel ‘normal’ and not be cause for alarm. In fact, people who are used to experiencing stress since early childhood find it alarming when they are not experiencing something stressful. It is “the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol [which are produced in droves when individuals are playing video or online games]…[so much so that] stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.”18
So, where do we go from here? As dire as the story sounds, we have the personal power to cultivate both an inner and external environment that is less stressful. We have the wisdom and courage to say no to the things that do not support us in living fulfilling lives. We have the right to choose how we will spend our precious moments on this beautiful planet. For example, we can make choices based on motivations that have to do with supporting our health rather than fearing rejection or death. We can decrease the number of hours we spend in front of our TV’s or online where we are fed a diet of life-disturbing images and information. We can spend more time moving our bodies authentically and in nature. We can reflect on what we are grateful for each day. And we can recommit to carving out lives that sustain all living creatures and the planet itself…one that values the natural cycles of life rather than rewarding actions that cause harm or unnatural death.
We have the incredible temple of our very own bodies to guide us back to health and sustain us. In fact, the wisest physician and the greatest magician is our very own body. It is designed for survival and as a sentient and complex organism, it has many checks and balances in place to make survival most likely. Contrary to the dictates of western medical model, no amount of drugs will effectively cure an ailment if we do not address the underlying causes and make long-lasting changes in the choices we make in our lives. There is no magic bullet…but there is magic and mystery. And if we have the courage to dive deeply into the turbulent waters of our psyches and take the time to learn more about the vehicle that carries us through life, we can identify these underlying causes and create real, life-long change for health and wellness.
1 “When The Body Says No: The Costs of Hidden Stress”, Gabor Mate. Pg 59
2 Ibid, pg 60
3 Ibid, pg 60
4 Ibid, pg 60
5 Ibid, pg 61
6 Ibid, pg 61
7 Ibid, pg 28
8 Ibid, pg 28
9 Ibid, pg 29
10 Ibid, pg 32-33
11 Ibid, pg 34
12 Ibid, pg 38
13 Ibid, pg 79
14 Ibid, pg 3
15 Ibid, pg 5
16 Ibid, pg 7
17 Ibid, pg 35
18 Ibid, pg 28