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The Healing Force Within

By Gabor Maté, MD

I can’t express anger,” says Woody Allen’s character in Manhattan. “I grow a tumor instead.” Much more scientific truth is encapsulated in that droll remark than many doctors would recognize.

For all its triumphs and technical progress, mainstream Western medical practice militantly dismisses the role of emotions in the physiological functioning of the human organism. Its rejection of the mind/body unity is a classic case of denial.

In more than two decades of family medicine, including seven years of palliative care work, I was struck by how consistently the lives of people with chronic illness are characterized by emotional shutdown: the paralysis of “negative” emotions—in particular, the feeling and expression of anger. This pattern held true in a wide range of diseases: from cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis to inflammatory bowel disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Sufferers from asthma, psoriasis, migraines, fibromyalgia, endometriosis and a host of other conditions also exhibited similar inhibitions. People seemed incapable of considering their own emotional needs and were driven by a compulsive sense of responsibility for the needs of others. They all had difficulty saying no.

One of the terminally ill patients under my care was a middle-aged man, chief executive of a company that marketed shark cartilage as a treatment for cancer. By the time he was admitted to our palliative care unit, his own recently diagnosed cancer had spread throughout his body. He continued to eat shark cartilage almost to the day of his death, but not because he any longer believed in its value. It smelled foul—the offensive stench was noticeable even at some distance away—and I could only imagine what it tasted like. “I hate it,” he told me, “but my business partner would be so disappointed if I stopped.” I convinced him that he had every right to live his last days without carrying the burden of someone else’s disappointment.

As a workaholic physician, needing the whole world to love and admire me—and, above all, to need me—I also found it impossible to say no. No matter how busy I was, I always accepted one more patient, one more counseling client, one more difficult case. As I did so, there was less and less space for myself in my own life.

The result was chronic back pain and a constant, low-grade depression. It was when my own difficulties finally dragged me into therapy—kicking and screaming, of course—that I began to recognize the same traits in others.

The observation that the inefficient processing of emotions predisposes one to illness of all kinds has been noted by many clinicians in the past. It has been the subject of much research, all of it published in mainstream medical and psychological journals. In several studies conducted in a number of different countries, psychologists interviewing thousands of patients have been able to predict with overwhelming certainty who would and who would not develop cancer, based simply on the degree to which an individual suppressed their feeling and expression of anger. Long-term studies of medical students at Johns Hopkins and of undergraduates at Harvard have confirmed that certain emotional traits in youth tend to be associated with illness later in life, quite apart from lifestyle influences such as smoking, drinking and exercise habits.

Indivisible Humans

Science has now given us an understanding of how the interplay of emotions and physiology affects health. A new discipline, psychoneuoroimmunology, studies the connections between the brain areas that process emotions, the hormone-secreting glands, the nervous system and the immune apparatus. And here we confront the inadequacy of language. Even to speak of “connections” implies that, somehow, these are separate entities that are linked to each other. Reality knows no such separation. There is no emotional system distinct from the hormone-producing organs, no nervous system divided from the immune defenses. One can make these divisions only in the laboratory, in autopsy specimens and in textbooks. There exists in living persons one super-system of which the emotional centers, neurological pathways, hormonal glands and immune organs are all aspects. They are all wired together electrically by nerve fibers, and they all speak the same chemical language. They do not, and can not, function in isolation from each other.

A cursory visit to medical libraries or to online sites is enough to show the advancing tide of research papers, journal articles and textbooks discussing this new knowledge. Information has filtered down to many people in popular books and magazines. The lay public, ahead of the professionals in many ways and less shackled to old orthodoxies, finds it less threatening to accept that we human beings cannot be divided up so easily, and that the whole, wondrous human organism is more than simply the sum of its parts.

How does emotional repression predispose to illness? Since there is only one system, not four separate ones, whatever happens in any one part of it will affect the other parts. The repression of anger leads to the chronic secretion of stress hormones, such as cortisol, that suppress the immune system. This disarms the body’s defenses against infection from the outside and malignant changes from within. When anger turns against the self, as it does in people unable to express it in a healthy way, hormonal imbalances can induce the immune system to mutiny against the body. Inflammatory autoimmune diseases of the joints, blood vessels and internal organs may follow, as can conditions like diabetes and Alzheimer’s. It would be rare to find an individual with any of these diagnoses whose lifelong emotional coping patterns were not stamped by difficulty with anger.

As far as orthodox medical practice is concerned, the mind-body research all falls into some Bermuda Triangle, lost without a trace. The medical system continues to operate as if the new science did not exist. Psychoneuroimmunology has yet to enter the curricula of most medical schools. Illnesses are looked at only from the perspective of their physical manifestations. That they occur in the context of the real lives of real people is rarely considered. It’s as if a person’s relationships, emotional life and day-to-day stresses had nothing to do with how his or her body functions on the biological level. Patients may see specialists for years without the scientifically proven unity of mind and body ever being brought to their attention.

Why this neglect?

Prior to the development of the powerful medications, instruments and diagnostic tools of the past century, physicians had to rely on awakening the healing forces within the patient if treatments were to succeed. That meant having to know people as individuals, cultivating a relationship with them—becoming acquainted with their lives. The advent of modern pharmacology and medical technologies vastly increased the capacity of physicians to help their patients, but reliance upon the new modalities has caused an atrophy of the age-old human wisdom that used to inform medical practice. At the beginning of the 20th century, Sir William Osler, a Canadian physician considered to be one of the greatest clinicians and medical educators of all time, was highly conscious of the mind-body unity. Osler’s name is still honored, but the spirit of his teachings has long vanished from the practice of medicine. Instead of working alongside the traditional insights, modern medical science has completely displaced them.