The more we learn, the more we realise that our health is a complex consequence of all our relationships, personal and social.

Mind/Body Health

Emotional stress is a major cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases. The brain and body systems that process emotions are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system, and in particular the immune system. Dr. Maté’s insight into the relationship of the mind and the body are presented in: When the Body Says No, a groundbreaking book published in multiple languages on five continents.


When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, is a passionately argued thesis that stress has a major role in the onset of most chronic diseases. Warmly received by readers and published in eight languages on five continents, When The Body Says No combines the latest findings of modern science with the poignant and compelling stories of many patients, ordinary people and famous. The book has been greeted with both support and controversy in the medical community.

Q. What’s the practical value of the information you’re presenting in this book?

A. When someone comes to a doctor with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s not enough that they get prescribed an anti-inflammatory; they should also be engaged in a conversation about the life stresses that triggered the episode of inflammation, as invariably turns out to be the case. The ultimate aim, of course, is to help people develop the capacity to say no to unwanted stress so that their body doesn’t end up having to say it for them.

One may wish to explore and accept the full range of medical treatments available – and at the same time one needn’t believe that that’s enough, or that’s where one’s options end. In addition to whatever physical modalities or treatments are offered or accepted, when the time is right and the person is ready, there’s tremendous value to cultivating a real understanding of how one has lived one’s life, maybe in ways that haven’t been supportive of oneself. That exploration can provide insights and possibilities for change that can greatly improve the quality of one’s life, with or without a serious disease. Healing (which, in its origins, literally means “making whole”) is a matter not just of physical modalities but of understanding how we generate stress, and learning how not to generate stress.

Both in the literature and in particular examples that I’ve witnessed very close-up, there is ample evidence that this kind of approach can promote healing, prolong life, and most importantly improve the quality of life for people with illnesses. There are people who have lived much longer, or much healthier, than their medical prognoses would have predicted.

I hope that health professionals will also find this information valuable in providing better and more comprehensive care.

Q. Are you actually saying that I’ve created the conditions for my own disease? And if so, aren’t you blaming the victim?

A. Well, first of all, blame has nothing to do with it, so let’s take that out of the equation. As I’ve written above, blame is a useless commodity in trying to understand or deal with a complex problem, whether one blames oneself or something/someone else (one’s parents, one’s genes, etc.) It’s common to confuse blame with responsibility, which I am advocating and which has nothing to do with blame. Responsibility has to do with taking ownership and, just as the word sounds, with “response ability” – the ability to respond effectively and intelligently, in a way that makes a difference.

Q. Fine, but by saying that I’m responsible, I don’t see how that’s different than saying that I caused it, that it’s my fault, or my doing. I don’t see how to get around that implication in what you’re saying.

A. I understand that. Look, language has limitations. It’s very tricky to speak about something like “cause” without sounding like I’m personalizing the issue, or pointing the finger – “you brought this on yourself.” That’s not at all what I’m saying. What I am saying is that through no conscious will of your own, and for perfectly understandable reasons that had to do with your own emotional survival and thus were valid at the time, you have developed a personality style that has turned out to be bad for your health in the long run. The inability to say no, the need to take on other people’s problems as your own, the driven need to always be “nice” or “helpful” or “positive” or not “rock the boat”, even if that means suppressing one’s own emotions – these traits are all responses to early childhood experiences and circumstances, over which the child has no control. It’s not even a conscious choice; it’s more of an automatic decision the young self makes in order to stay afloat in stressful emotional waters. Over time, if those patterns get reinforced and become rigid parts of the personality and remain unexamined, they can have detrimental effects on immune system functioning, even to the point of serious illness. They first emerge as responses to stress, but in the long run they themselves are incredibly stressful to body and mind (which are inseparable, as I discuss in the book.)

So yes, in a sense I am saying you created the conditions for your disease, but only with two crucial asterisks attached to the words “you” and “created”. You certainly didn’t create it deliberately, nor did you create the external conditions you grew up in; and in a way it wasn’t really you, if by “you” we mean the part of your mind or soul that makes conscious, rational, purposeful choices. Rather, over time, your emerging personality did what it needed to do to stay intact, and it developed some strategies that have backfired over time. It didn’t know any better, and there’s no point in regretting or belabouring this – only in using this knowledge to empower yourself now.

Taking responsibility means recognizing that you’re the one who can now begin to recognize those patterns (which until now have remained hidden and automatic) and start to do the work to change them – which is really just the work of honouring and (literally) embodying your own, true, authentic self. Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to bring us back to ourselves, to what’s really important. For some people that takes the form of a loved one dying or a horrible accident. I know this may be hard to accept right now, but you might want to consider the view that your disease has actually come along to bring you back to yourself. The great spiritual teacher A.H. Almaas talks about “a part of you that loves you so much that it will make you suffer greatly, to teach you – because what else can it do? That’s its job.”

It’s my belief that diseases like cancer, ALS, multiple sclerosis and so on, that cause so much suffering for people, all come along to teach something – and that if the lesson is learned, with compassion for oneself, then the “teacher” has done its job and can then take a hike. That’s not a guarantee, but I’ve seen many examples of people who have taken on their illnesses in this way and either survived or far outlived what medical science would have predicted, or at least greatly improved their own quality of life while alive. And the research literature confirms this.

Q. Do you really think there are particular types of personalities that get particular illnesses (e.g. an ALS personality, an MS personality, and so on?)

A. I don’t think it’s as simple as that, or if it is, I certainly don’t have the insight to draw a one-to-one link like that. No personality “causes” disease. But the more emotionally repressed we are, the less we can say “no” to the world’s demands, the more we take on, the more stressed we also become. It’s that stress, then, that contributes to the onset of disease in a major way–not the personality directly. In my experience, people with ALS tend to be among the most emotionally repressed of all the patients with these sorts of illnesses – the most heavily defended against their own experience of anger and pain from childhood – but that’s not a medical fact, just a general impression. Again, that is not their fault–it’s simply how they learned to survive their childhoods–and how we survive our childhoods shape our personalities. (Remember, too, that I don’t claim that emotional stress “causes” disease, but rather that it’s a major predisposing factor, laying the groundwork for disease to arise.)

I do think it’s useful to listen to the language used by disease sufferers themselves, which can have an eloquent, poignant, and sometimes eerie precision in describing how their personalities and emotional worlds prefigure their diseases. There a few examples that I cite in the book, including Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who actually predicted his own dementia (he later died of Alzheimer’s disease) in his poetry, and also in his conversations: on a walk with a friend once, he pointed to a decaying tree and said, “I shall be like that tree; I shall die first at the top.”  Jacqueline du Pré, the world-famous cello prodigy, once told her sister Hilary in childhood, in a secretive whisper, “Hil, don’t tell Mum but… when I grow up, I won’t be able to walk or move.” In both cases, these sensitive souls were not just making uncanny future predictions; they were expressing in metaphor what they already felt inside, what their world was like.  These premonitions can also be stored in the unconscious; take my ALS patient who, after a lifetime of recurring nightmares of being buried alive, walked into a doctor’s office following her diagnosis to see a poster that said “ALS is like being buried alive.”

Since the mind and body are inseparable, it’s perhaps not surprising that these premonitory metaphors can grow into concrete physical realities, but it’s still striking – and a reminder of the importance in medical care of really listening to people’s stories, their experiences, their very language, for clues about how they experience the world.