Review – When the Body Says No

I just read this book “When the Body Says No (The Cost of Hidden Stress)” by Gabor Mate. It’s a bit old now, published 2003, but I hadn’t seen it before.

This is probably going to be the shortest review ever – because I can’t decide whether the content is profoundly wise or a load of codswallop. I’m actually hoping you, my lovely readers, would read the book and offer your own opinion in the comments.

Anyway, the premise is that modern medicine is problematic in separating the mind and the body, or mental health and physical health. The author uses case studies of patients to illustrate how aspects of their personalities and the ways in which they deal with life stresses may have contributed to the development of physical disease.

So far so good; I know from experience that mental and physical health are connected. The book clarifies how internal stress affects all kinds of neurological, endocrine (hormonal) and immunological pathways and thus can contribute to the development of disease. I can see this might be particularly relevant to autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Chrohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, which together with cancers and motor neurone disease / ALS are the main topic of his case studies.

I was also interested in his thoughts on why some people with genetic or environmental risks for cancer and alzheimers disease go on to develop disease and some do not. I have sometimes wondered whether many of us might be carrying around early cancerous changes, and this book explains that we rely on fully functioning immune systems to keep these in check. And certainly it does seem to me as though doctors are still trained towards treating physical diseases without wholistic consideration of the life stress and coping mechanisms of the sufferer.

One thing that I am wary of, however, is drawing any conclusions from the few case studies examined in the book. In places, it reads as though the author is linking particular types of coping style with certain diseases, almost pointing to a “lung cancer personality” as being someone with repressed anger, a “rheumatoid arthritis personality” as being someone who looks after others and shows no weakness, or an “ALS personality” as being a driven perfectionist.

To me, that goes a bit too far. Extracts of his interviews with patients are presented which do illustrate the personality traits and coping mechanisms at play – but I had a niggling feeling that if one was to dive into the childhood/ family experiences of any one of us in a similar fashion, one would be able to find some kind of unhealthy coping mechanism. Do people even exist who have such maturity of outlook as to remain emotionally regulated through any life stress, and able to maintain the perfect balance of security and autonomy in their relationships?

No, I don’t think so either.

On the whole though, I found this book very interesting. It prompted a bit of soul-searching of the “do I have a problem with repressed anger?” type. But there’s no harm in that.

In fact, the book noted that positivity of the kind which stops us from examining the negatives in our lives can actually be harmful and lead to poorer outcomes. It is only by examining our own repressed emotions and harmful coping mechanisms that we can bring about change and healing.

OK, so not such a short review after all – and I’ve now decided I liked the book, even if I’m a bit wary of some aspects. Thoughts, anyone?

6 thoughts on “Review – When the Body Says No”

  1. I do worry about repressed anger as a cause of a lot of things. Mental and physical are so closely connected and there is nothing worse than repressing reactions because you don’t want to hurt other people. One the one hand it makes you the nice one but at what cost? I’m not advocating anger but wondering if there is a fair compromise otherwise you end up hurting yourself – there is no other recourse, is there?
    Your review and the book are fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there is a bit if discussion on that topic near the end of the book. I like the author’s approach that we should neither repress anger nor give vent to it as rage, which will harm someone else. The approach seems to be about feeling and recognising our anger, then using that in a proactive sense to as impetus to initiate a change.
      The way I think of it is (apologies for the overly simple analogy), if you order coffee and get hot water, it’s not healthy to just drink it and say nothing, but neither is it a good idea to have an angry rant at the barista and ruin their day. Instead we can use the anger as impetus to formulate a message to the coffee shop which might bring about a change in procedures so that the mistake doesn’t happen again.


  2. Hey. Since you’re sort of asking for comments, I’ll mention that I’ve read this book a while ago, I think – not sure if I read all of it or just parts. I’ve also more recently read Gabor Mate’s book on ADHD (might be interesting for fellow neurodivergents), and remember that one slightly better.

    I generally liked that books, though I see why some people might criticise them.

    Based on my own experience with random “mystery” conditions and symptoms (won’t go into detail in public comments), what he says makes sense – in my own case, there are classes of symptoms that I could trace back to specific emotional/situational patterns. What I’ve observed is that in my case this connection often goes via simple muscle tensions (e.g. repressing a specific emotion makes me tense a specific part of my body, and that then generates specific symptoms, e.g. digestive or headache or body aches in specific parts etc.). From what I’ve observed that’s not even “esoteric” in any way, it seems to be a case of simple mechanics – it takes a lot of body awareness and observation to notice it though (and I have a lot of training in some related skills).

    In other cases I’ve been able to trace symptoms back to food intolerances and bad timing / indigestions (symptoms you wouldn’t associate with it at first, like excessive mood swings), and based on what I know about brain and gut science (e.g. neurotransmitters are produced in the gut, like … 90% (!!!) of serotonin!), that isn’t particularly weird or woo-woo either, I expect that in the next years or decades research on this will enter the mainstream. I wonder why it’s not front and center now / yet.

    In short, his stuff makes sense to me based on experience.

    On the other hand, I think taking it too literally / in a too simplified and schematic fashion does render it ridiculous, and also un-empirical – like taking one case study and then concluding that EACH instance of disease X is caused by emotional pattern Y, in every person. I think first, people are too individual – for example I might tense my neck in response to a particular kind of stress and develop headaches, but someone else might hold their breath in response to the same types of situations and exacerbate their asthma, say (don’t really know about asthma, so this example might be stupid). For any number of individualised reasons.

    I totally do think though that sustained tension patterns, repeated over years and decades, gradually get worse and more ingrained until they finally crystallise as a “disease” with a name. I’ve seen this in a few cases, and I also think … it’s kind of common sense enough? At least it seems more logically satisfying than to think that diseases just pop up from nowhere and “befall” you without any previous development. – But then of course there are ALSO diseases that are purely external, let’s say if you poison yourself or have a toxic exposure or injury.

    I think the point is not to oversimplify and not to overgeneralize – I see this more as a tool for very careful self-exploration, or very individualised work with some sort of reasonable mind-body practitioner (e.g Somatic Experiencing, and other kinds of practices based on somatic awareness).

    The reason I’ve seen people really hate this work is that some take it as saying, “if you develop cancer, it’s YOUR FAULT because you produced it YOURSELF by repressing your emotion X”. I personally don’t think that’s what the author is saying. But I’ve heard that certain circles hold this sort of ideology (blaming people for their diseases – bizarre??!?), and then read it into this I guess.

    I think taken in this way, it is of course B-S because 1) it’s not like we just know and control our emotional patterns – if you ever tried, you know you can’t just expect that of someone; it takes YEARS of work and support in most cases – can’t blame anyone for not being willing or able to do that 2) this isn’t the case for all diseases; I assume even autoimmune diseases can be purely environmentally caused, esp. in our era of pesticides and ubiquitous pollution; 3) people are individual, as you say, you can’t generalize from a bunch of case studies. People have too many individual factors – I imagine it might even be too individual to be testable in some manageable way.

    What I take the value of the writing to be is an optional tool for (blame-free) self-exploration for those people who find it empowering and helpful, and have the energy and space to introspect. In other words, I think it’s useful as a tool for people who want to (and can) “use” that kind of hardcore challenges as an inroad to self-exploration, for whom it’s a value. It fits me, but I’ve definitely seen it isn’t for everyone. My current value about it is that the body and health are very individual and nobody should be pushed – neither into “alternative” stuff nor into “conventional” stuff (and yes, I hate this superficial distinction) – autonomy around one’s own body and mind is key.

    [sorry again I’m leaving you very long comments – can’t help it though as I’ve actually spent a lot of time around these topics.]

    Liked by 1 person

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