stress-disease connection

Key take-aways from book: Mate, Gabor. “When the body says no – exploring the stress-disease connection,” NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.

There is a growing number of people who feel empty, unloved, without purpose, think no one really ever listened or cared about what they thought or did when they were growing up — and they are showing up in the health care facilities looking for answers for their merged emotional and physical pain. This book by Gabor Mate offered some amazing insight.

 All of us need our parents to be ATTUNED to us.

ATTUNMENT – occurs when parent “tuned in” to child’s emotional needs.

Instinctive – but can be subverted if parent stressed or distracted  (e.g. financial, occupational, emotional, social issues).

Learned behavior – passed across the generations. Can predict child outcomes based on evaluations of parent’s own experiences.

“Children may feel loved and a strong attachment, but may not experience themselves as appreciated for who they really are. They learn to present only their “acceptable” side to the parent, repressing emotional responses the parent rejects and learning to reject themselves for even having such responses.”

IN ABSENCE OF ATTUNMENT– Sense of rejection/humiliation

Child often has no recollection of actual details of trigger events = but the memory system guides behavior all their life…

  • infants are not born repressing expression of emotion
  • infants need to get all needs met, sense when they are not
  • automatic UNCONSCIOUS responses of vulnerable children who tried (without success) to get their parent into alignment with their own needs


  • doesn’t require “abuse”
    • can be that something positive was withheld
    • e.g. love, touch, attention, interest 
  • physical presence with emotional absence
    • can occur when parents look away first during eye-to-eye gaze with infant even before age of 18 mths
  • can occur when a parent insists on waking a resting child
  • if parent desires interaction when child needs break
  • Indifference to child’s rooting, reaching, seeking parent attention

RESPONSE by the child:

  • state of anxious hypervigiliance
  • fear and anxiety over future rejections 
  • repress emotions as adult that make them feel rejected
  • not sensing own stress or seeing changes in behaviors in order to avoid the rejection
  • overcompliance 
  • fear of saying no
  • having grown up “alone” with emotions – feel that “no one” can understand how they really feel as an adult
  • tend to pick partners similar to parent – causing ongoing stress!

Parental love

Infinite – selfless nurturing embedded in mammalian brain. IF constricted– indicative that parent suffered deep hurt.  Result — Lack of unconditional acceptance from parent to child

“Child receives the parent’s love not as the parent wishes but as it is refracted through the parent’s personality.” 

Stressed?  Unresolved anxiety? Unmet emotional needs?   These emotions can be passed along!

“Biology” of Belief of child used to being rejected says: 

  1.  “I can handle everything myself.”  “I have to be strong.”  This prevents them from feeling rejected (again), by never asking for help. But these people have double standards – they always help others, and don’t judge those who ask for help!   

Unhealthy coping:  Denial of vulnerabilityCompensatory hyper-independence.

Truth: Strong people can still need help. Strong people may still have areas of their life that they are confused and helpless. 

2. “If I’m angry I will not be lovable.  I want to be liked.” 

Unhealthy coping:  Repression of anger.

Truth: Anger is just an emotion that can be and should be expressed in healthy ways.

3. Lost in the stress of the parent’s home, believes “I don’t exist unless I do something. I must justify my existence.  I must excel to get attention, I need to achieve more.”

Unhealthy coping:  Incessant need to be productive; perfectionism.  

Truth: It is healthy to have times of rest.  Your best effort is your best.

“One cannot be autonomous as long as one is driven by relationship dynamics, by guilt or attachment needs, by hunger for success, by the fear of the boss or by the fear of boredom.. autonomy is impossible as long as one is driven by anything!”   –Need to be aware of our invisible strings, still attached to our parents.

Need the courage to have HEALTHY changes!

  • See our self as we really are – admit what unhealthy coping strategies we use. 
  • “Do I live my life according to my own deepest truths, or in order to fulfill someone else’s expectations?  How much of what I have believed and done is actually my own and how much has been in service to a self-image I originally created in the belief it was necessary to please my parents?”  Stop acting out the role of someone who we are not.
  • Recognize emotionally draining family relationships.
  • Remove the rose-colored glasses – not to blame others – but to study the relationships that framed us, accept our unmet emotional needs
  • GUILT is a signal that you have chosen to do something for yourself!  If you face the choice between feeling guilt and resentment, choose the guilt every time.  If a refusal to someone saddles you with guilt, while consent leaves resentment in its wake, opt for the guilt.  Resentment is soul suicide.
  • Gaze unflinchingly on our own behalf at what does not work.  Truth heals.

The Seven A’s of Healing

  • Acceptance– recognize, accept how things are.  Develop a compassionate relationship with yourself – no double standards of offering slack to others, none to self.
  • Awareness– gut feelings, signs of stress, tension, fatigue, anxiety, loss of joy.
  • Anger – must be experienced and expressed – properly 

Safe anger: using calm, lower pitch of voice as vocal chords and jaw relaxes, shoulders drop – devoid of muscle tension as you say, “I am… disappointed, frustrated, discouraged, confused, overwhelmed, sad, feeling betrayed…”

Unsafe anger: rage, actually a form of anxiety; voice tight, shallow rapid respirations, muscles tense –internal and external.   Also unsafe: acting out, yelling, screaming, and hitting.

  • Autonomy – clear boundary between self and parent; an internal sense of control.
  • Attachment – establishing social connections vital to healing
  • Assertion –declare to the world that “I am”– and that “I am who I am.”   Letting go of the need to act or pretend. That is is okay to just be.
  • Affirmation – express your creative self and seek out spirituality.

Stress-Disease Connections are REAL!

  • Suppressing your own needs for the sake of the relationship
    • more physical illness 
    • increase in auto-immune illnesses (lupus, arthritis, fibromyalgia…)
    • increase in non-smoking induced cancers 
  • Lack of closeness to parent as child – not “feeling” loved
    • higher suicide
    • more mental health issues
    • increased blood pressure and coronary artery disease
    • increased cancer

HANDOUT: Dr. Karen Reichel Smith DNP, 2018