We often hear about public health crises related to poor diet, lack of exercise, and smoking. But what about chronic stress?
Canadian physician Gabor Maté studies the mind-body connection. He argues that chronic stress plays a big role in the development of disease.
It should come as no surprise that that emotions can impact physical health. When we’re sad, we cry. When we’re embarrassed, we blush. When we’re nervous, we might have lumps in our throats or butterflies in our stomachs.
Clearly, our feelings aren’t just experienced in our heads.
When we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones impact our entire bodies.
When we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones impact our entire bodies. They stop digestion, suppress our immune systems, and mobilize energy to gear up for fight or flight.
This is extremely useful if you’re faced with a deadly physical threat, like a predator about to eat you. But it’s extremely harmful if your organs are bathed in stress hormones day after day after day. It causes disease.
Many of us are so used to living like this that we think it’s normal. We interpret the lack of stress as “boredom,” and we often find it intolerable.
Many of us are so used to living like this that we think it’s normal. We interpret the lack of stress as ‘boredom,’ and we often find it intolerable.
In our society, those who go go go are applauded. Self-care is discouraged. Taking some time off to recharge is seen as indulgent and lazy, rather than responsible and healthy.
According to Maté, how we handle our emotions is a key indicator of health. Healthy individuals consciously feel angry when they’re violated in some way—and they react assertively to protect themselves.
But many of us bottle up our feelings instead. “It takes tremendous energy to suppress emotions,” Maté observes. “The act itself is stress producing.”
It takes tremendous energy to suppress emotions. The act itself is stress producing.
— Gabor Maté, Canadian physician
That behavior can go all the way back to childhood. “Don’t cry,” parents might tell children. Perhaps they even shame the child for crying, or threaten to give them “something to cry about” if they don’t stop. So kids learn to bury emotion.
“When you’re a child and your parents can’t handle your feelings,” Maté explains, “you learn to suppress them to maintain your relationship with your parents. But what was a coping response in the child becomes a source of illness in the adult.”
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Related: Stress, The Weapon of Choice