Trauma and Chronic Illness

Today I want to talk about some of the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, because, well, I find it quite interesting. Dr. Mate is an addictions specialist, who has also worked as a family physician and in palliative care. Much of his work and research has been on that body-mind connection between mental health and chronic illness and substance use. He has a lot to say about stress, trauma, and coping and their relationship to chronic illnesses ranging from autoimmune diseases to neurological conditions to skin disorders to cancer. While I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with everything he says, a lot of it does make sense.

The work of Dr. Mate I had heard of before but never looked much into. At my practicum, the other student at my site brought it up. She was interested in his work as someone who wants to work with people who use substances, and she thought I might also be interested as someone who is specializing in working with people with chronic illness (which is currently 40% of my case load!). She was correct that this would be interesting and helpful for my work as a psychotherapist. So let’s talk about some of this work. Dr. Mate asserts that there is a “pathway from stressful emotions, often unconscious, to physical disease” or to break it down slightly differently, “emotional stress if a major cause of physical illness.” Again, he’s talking about a wide range of illnesses, including autoimmune diseases and cancer. There are two parts of this that I found interesting doing some research (and there’s a lot more I want to do yet – there’s a whole book of his that’s on my to read list).

The first part is emotions themselves. For instance, Dr. Mate connects repressed anger to the development of autoimmune diseases. Basically, if you’re not letting your anger out (in an appropriate way of course) and instead, you’re holding it in, it bursts out, not in a fit of rage, but in a chronic illness such as RA or lupus and so on. Tied into this is emotional repression in general. So if you’re disregarding your emotions, whatever they may be, and holding them in, this can lead to illness as well. On his website Dr. Mate gives the example of Lou Gehrig and ALS (and according to Mate, every patient he has seen with ALS), who often disregarded both emotional and physical pain he was in throughout his life.

The second part is trauma and trauma response. It is pretty well documented that people who endure trauma, especially early in life, will make adaptive changes either physically or psychologically, in order to survive. Childhood abuse is one often cited with this. It is also well documented that childhood trauma has a huge impact on adult physical and mental health. Dr. Mate states that trauma in another cause of the range of chronic conditions I’ve mentioned.

So wait, does this mean that every person with pretty much any chronic conditions has either a history of trauma and/or a history of emotional repression? Not necessarily. I watched an interview with Dr. Mate, where the interviewer asked just that (because it’s a rather big claim). The response was that of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it does apply to a large portion of this population. Interesting. So my thoughts on it are this: I have an autoimmune disease. I did not have any kind of significant childhood trauma (I have maybe what I’d call minor trauma) and I have usually been good at expressing my emotions (though I have gone through periods where I’ve been less likely to, those are usually short-lived). Basically, I’m not sure I fall into this category. I also know many other Spoonies who would not fall into this category. That being said, especially through my work as a therapist, there are many people who this does make sense for.

It’s not necessarily the case for everyone. Circa 1988/89.

My main takeaway from this is that to help heal from chronic illness (and I’m not saying cure), one really has to take care of their emotional health. See a therapist. If there’s trauma in your background, that likely needs to be worked through (also just in general for your mental health). If it’s emotional repression, then you need to start to learn to open up (part of my work as an acceptance and commitment therapist is to get people to allow their emotions to be there). The body and mind are connected so we need to treat them as such.

That’s all for this week. Until next week, keep making the most of it.

References:
https://drgabormate.com/culture-good-health/
https://drgabormate.com/topic/mindbody-health/

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