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

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

ATTUNMENT – occurs when parents “tune 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. Child outcomes can be predicted based on evaluations of parent’s experiences.

IN ABSENCE OF ATTUNMENT– Sense of rejection/humiliation

  • Infants are not born repressing expression of emotion, it is learned.
  • Infants need to get all needs met, sense when they are not.
  • Children are not aware they have been triggered to seek unmet parental attention needs.


  • may be in the absence of “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
  • parental indifference to rooting, reaching, attention seeking

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 
  • fearing more rejection, present only their acceptable, perfect side to their parent
  • 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!

“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 rest, be idle, do nothing but relax. No one is perfect, and it is unhealthy to expect it from yourself.

Need to be aware of our invisible strings, still attached to our parents.

Summon the courage to make HEALTHY changes!

  • See your self as you really are – admit what unhealthy coping strategies you use.
  • Be compassionate to yourself, no double standards of being nicer to others. 
  • Be aware of your invisible strings, still attached to your parents! Set clear boundaries with your parents that you control, protecting yourself from the inside out.
  • Ask yourself, am I living a life in service of a self-image I created trying to please my parents, or according to my own base beliefs, morals, ethics, and values? Say I am, who I am, and that’s okay with me!
  • Recognize emotionally draining family relationships.
  • Remove the rose-colored glasses – not to blame others – but to study the relationships that framed us, and accept our unmet emotional needs.
  • If a refusal to someone, saddles you with guilt, while consent leaves resentment in its wake, opt for the guilt.  Resentment is soul suicide. GUILT is a signal that you have chosen to do something for yourself! 
  • Truth heals.
  • Establish healthy social connections.
  • Anger must be experienced and properly expressed.

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.

Stress-Disease Connections are REAL!

  • Suppressing your own needs for the sake of the relationship
    • results in more physical illness 
    • increased auto-immune illnesses (lupus, arthritis, fibromyalgia…)
    • increased 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, 2019; content summarized from book by Mate, Gabor. “When the body says no – exploring the stress-disease connection,” NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.