When addressing injuries, modern medical technology is miraculous. Setting bones, restoring heart beats, and healing burns are all gifts to those that suffer them. But in the face of chronic disease, modern medicine struggles. For sufferers of neurological or auto-immune disorders, symptoms may be relieved, but the honest clinician will admit that prognosis and recovery depend upon factors beyond their control.
Gabor Maté is among those honest physicians. In “When the Body Says No,” he surveys private cases and public studies demonstrating that healing of chronic illness requires that care addresses the patient’s emotional and social needs.
Why is this wisdom not commonly accepted by the medical industry? Maté relates that from ancient times until the modern era, physicians respected the link between mind and body. Currently, however, when seeking approval for mass marketing of therapies, emotional and social needs complicate the assessment of medical trials. Developers and manufacturers of therapies therefore suppress those factors. Marketing teams create and fill an echo-chamber with assertions that their therapies can provide meaningful relief without addressing emotional needs.
Maté uses the simplest evidence to penetrate this cloud of confusion. In the fifties and sixties, studies of sufferers of chronic illness demonstrated that each disease correlates with a psychological profile. The relationship was strong enough that the profiles were predictive of the results of diagnosis exams. Each profile characterized childhood experiences as well as adult attitudes and priorities. What is common to all, however, is a disconnect between body and mind that manifests as self-abuse. The mind says “no” to the body, and disease results when the body rebels against that tyranny.
Maté substantiates this link along two scientific threads. The first thread traces the chemical pathways that link the mind to the body. The second thread examines the psychological pressures, both natural and cultural, that make the human condition a torment of anxiety and resentment. That psychological unease drives us into metabolic states that are meant to be temporary. When sustained for extended periods, the body becomes chemically imbalance. That imbalance may poison the nervous system, create unchecked inflammation in the gut or joints, or disorganize the immune system.
While these effects could in principle be evaluated through chemical analysis of body fluids, Maté points out that each type of cell in the “psycho-neuro-immuno-endocrine network” has fifty to seventy chemical receptors. When one chemical goes out of regulation, the network attempts to compensate to restore balance. Disease only breaks out when those compensatory elements become exhausted. At that point, the entire network is out of balance, and it is impossible to determine where to start.
Maté’s private case studies share the results of his commitment to holistic therapy. Patients are encouraged to understand how their behaviors and attitudes divorce them from awareness of their physical state. Turning their attention inward, patients are encouraged to relearn how to regulate their metabolism. This sounds complex, but Maté shares an encouraging story: a sufferer from ALS, considered a terminal diagnosis, who found healing in sitting in front of a mirror each day and saying “I love you” to every body part. The inner mind, when allowed to devote attention to the self, figures out naturally how to restore balance.