When The Body Says No

When The Body Says No
Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy / Unsplash

Genre: Self-Help

Author: Gabor Maté

As promised, let’s start with some major key takeaways for this book review, and then we'll dive into the nitty-gritty of the book later on:

  1. This book is a reminder for everyone to do a "self-emotional inventory" regularly to be aware of one’s own emotions and process them.
  2. Repressed emotions can manifest in the form of different diseases. Don't bottle up your emotions; let them out in a healthier way.
  3. Listen to your body. Be attentive to all the signals it gives you before it’s too late.
  4. Build your emotional competence. These seven A’s of healing can help you do so: Acceptance, Awareness, (Healthy expression of) Anger, Autonomy, Attachment, Assertion, Affirmation.

One of my friends mentioned this book in our conversations earlier this year. I was intrigued by the title but hadn't gotten hold of it until recently when we decided to read it for our book club. I opted for the audiobook version because I could squeeze it into my schedule more easily, but you can definitely find the physical copy to read. The audiobook runs about 12 hours, so it's quite lengthy. You might want to pace yourself and not feel pressured to finish it right away.

When the Body Says No is a deeper dive into the connection between mental and physical health. Through extensive case studies of patients, interviews, and anecdotes, the author makes the point that our emotional patterns and psychological stressors can profoundly impact our physical health. Chronic stress and repressed emotions can manifest as autoimmune diseases (e.g., multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis), cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety, among others.

Take a moment here and think about how your stress manifests in terms of physical symptoms. For me personally, my gut health is affected by stress. I remember when I first moved to the US, I would wake up every single day with an upset stomach. I was chronically stressed at that time because everything was new; I had to figure out my way in a new country with no family and friends. I felt lonely. There were many variables that strained my mental health. My gut issues improved over time, but that's my body's way of signaling to me about my stress. I also experience other symptoms like headaches, physical exhaustion, low energy levels, and irritability.

Stress is our body's mechanism to respond to any real or perceived threats. Typically, the factors that trigger stress include uncertainty, conflict, lack of information, and loss of control. Our brain is smart; when it perceives these triggers, it activates the threat response, where the Hypothalamus, Pituitary, and Adrenal glands (HPA axis) release cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. In a stress response, our body becomes inflamed, and cortisol serves as an anti-inflammatory. That sounds like a perfect mechanism. However, if the perceived threats are not resolved, inflammation persists, leading to chronic stress. In simpler terms, if you are carrying stress from work, relationships, childhood trauma, finances, or family-related issues for a prolonged period, these can manifest as physical symptoms and progress to diseases as mentioned above. Isn’t it interesting how our emotions get trapped in our bodies and develop into diseases? If you find this interesting, this book is definitely for you.

Chronic stress results from external stressors as well as the internal response to those stressors. For example, consider two students tasked with a challenging assignment under a time crunch. While one may find it interesting and mentally stimulating, the other may perceive it as overwhelming and stressful. Different individuals can have entirely different experiences in the same circumstances. This is where our modern medicine and its prescriptive way of treating all individuals the same way could be flawed.

Modern medical practice treats the body and mind as separate entities. So, what happens is that doctors end up only treating bodily symptoms without fully understanding the connection between body and mind. This means the link between chronic disease and stress often gets lost. That’s why the author suggests the Biopsychosocial Approach, where any condition is viewed holistically, considering biological, psychological, and social factors that might contribute to the disease. Maté’s stories about his patients show how their personal history, childhood experiences, and the kind of relationships they had with their parents, along with traumatic experiences, led to chronic stress and eventually manifested as disease conditions. Without considering the social and psychological factors, it’s impossible to get to the root cause of any disease, which is why these should be a priority in treatment.

That’s for the clinicians, but what can we personally do to make sure we’re not living with chronic stress? Sometimes, we might be stressed without even realizing it. You might wonder, 'What? How’s that possible?' Well, it’s because many of us don’t really do a 'self-emotional inventory.' We don’t regularly check in with ourselves to assess our stressors and how we’re responding to them. For example, you might always put everyone else’s needs above your own without realizing how this is actually harming you. Or maybe you have a people-pleasing personality, and that’s adding to your stress. Life is full of things we rush through without taking a moment to pause and think about them. So, make sure to take that pause and check on your emotional well-being as well.

A lot of people tend to bottle up their emotions because they don’t know how to let them out. Emotional repression isn’t healthy for anyone. That’s why it’s important to find ways to release our emotions through healthy outlets. What counts as a healthy outlet can be different for everyone. For some, it could be running, meditating, or journaling. Others might find relief in crying or talking to a friend. It’s all about finding what works best for you.

Dr. Mate suggests that developing emotional competence can be helpful in managing stress in life. He talks about the following seven A’s of healing as ways to build emotional competence:

Acceptance: Embracing yourself and reality without any judgments or denial.

Awareness: Gaining a deep understanding of your own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and identifying their roots.

(Healthy Expression of) Anger: Constructively expressing dissatisfaction in a way that maintains your personal boundaries.  

Autonomy: Developing a sense of independence and self-direction in your thoughts and actions.

Attachment: Forming secure and supportive relationships that help you develop emotional resilience.

Assertion: Being assertive about your needs and expressing them confidently.

Affirmation: Recognizing your self-worth and achievements and practicing positive self-talk.

I think this gives you a pretty good overall idea about the book. It's packed with great information, and I would definitely recommend it to everyone. However, if you're particularly interested in the mind-body connection, you might enjoy it even more.

Let me know in the comments if you found this review helpful. If you've already read the book, what did you find most interesting? Was there anything that surprised you? Did you resonate with anything deeply? Feel free to share your thoughts.

Thank you for swinging by!

HERE are my other book reviews.

I will see you in the next blog post 😊