When the Body Says “No”:
The Cost of Hidden Stress

by Gabor Maté, Vintage Canada, 2003, 306 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

In this passionately written book, Gabor Maté decisively discredits the dissociation that modernity has made with respect to mind, emotions and body. He insists that it has always been understood intuitively that you cannot separate these entities, but unfortunately for the better part of the 20th century medical practitioners have done their best to disconnect them. And this process of compartmentalizing our persons, claims Maté, has blinded us to how our stress-laden societal patterns contribute to the myriad illnesses that plague us today.

In order to build his case, Maté examines life histories of many of the patients he has worked with throughout his career, especially those he encountered in his work as a palliative care doctor. By probing deeper than the standard concerns about symptoms, he began to discover personality and life-style commonalities among patients suffering from specific diseases. But, beyond his own discoveries, Maté cites one convincing study after another that contribute to a deeper understanding of the psychological connections between various kinds of stress and health. There is, in his opinion, a definite connection between emotions and disease.

One of the reasons the medical community has disconnected mind, emotions and body, suggests Maté, is because of the fact that “…specialization has led doctors to focus on disease, and not on an understanding of the person in whom one arises.” He points to copious evidence that human stress can result in a host of physiological symptoms. He is firmly convinced that “…suppressed emotions have physical consequences that can result in ill health.” One of the difficulties in dealing with this phenomenon is that chronic stress can be present in people without them being aware of it. But although it is hidden, it is deadly, claims Maté.

After making his point about the connection between stress and disease, the author offers some hope for healing. Once stresses are identified, he says, a person can take specific steps toward reducing them and so offer the body a chance to heal itself. Learning to say “No” is considered to be one of the best prescriptions for good health. When we don’t know how to say it, says Maté, our bodies will.

In the final chapter of the book, the author discusses at length the Seven A’s of Healing: Acceptance, Awareness, Anger, Autonomy, Attachment, Assertion and Affirmation. “The Seven A’s prepare the reader, both the afflicted and those who wish to live a more healthful life, to make the transformation from stress-inducing emotional patterns to a more integrated, self-honouring, and balanced existence.”

This is a “must-read book” for anyone concerned about healthy living and reversing some of the impact of the symptoms of ill health we have brought upon ourselves.