Global Resilience Solutions > Category:Dr. Gabor Mate

Emotional Roots of Your Chronic Health Challenges


This blog has tended to focus a great deal on the physical factors behind the chronic disease epidemic in our society, but an increasing body of research is pointing to another factor as the common denominator of disease.

That factor is stress, or rather, the way we process emotion and cope with inputs from the world.  Many followers of this blog will be familiar with the idea that trauma and unreleased emotion can lodge physically in the body’s energy system and become a cause for physical and psychological disease.  What few of us realize is that the very basic ways we process our life experiences may be causing this damaging emotional storage in the first place.


Roots in Childhood

What people often misidentify as their personality, their spectrum of emotional reaction to various stimuli, is simply a collection of coping mechanisms accumulated fairly early in childhood.  Dr. Gabor Maté, well-known Canadian physician, author and palliative care specialist, has intensively studied the emotional lives of people afflicted with diseases from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s to irritable bowel syndrome, and the link is almost universally inescapable.  Certain personalities tend to get certain diseases.


The Personality Spectrum

On one side of his spectrum, Dr. Maté places the familiar Type A personality- dominating, irascible, incapable of emotional repression.  On the other side is a super-agreeable, self-abnegating personality, the kind that will check their own emotional expression and personal needs at the door in order to make things, allegedly, better for others.  In the middle is a balanced personality.  It turns out that the Type A personality is prone to certain diseases, notably heart disease, while the repressed personality is prone to others, most notably cancers.


Psychoneuroimmunology (yes, it’s a big word 😉

As early as the 1950s, physicians all over the world were beginning to notice connections between personality and disease.  Studies in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research  began to illustrate some of the connections.

Dr. David Kissen designed a study showing that lung cancer patients were more emotionally repressed than the general population.  A longitudinal study of a village in the former Yugoslavia over a ten-year period monitored disease and mortality in a test population of 1400 in relation to a personality and emotional processing-based survey.  Ten years later, the highest mortality was from exactly the part of the population that exhibited rational, non-emotional coping styles.

Incidence of cancer was about forty times higher in this segment than in the general population.  Again, those who developed lung cancer all exhibited this trait- although all who did develop lung cancer were smokers, smokers did not develop the disease in the absence of this trait.

From observations like this, the field of psychoneuroimmunology began to take shape.  Very briefly, psychoneuroimmunology studies the connections between the mind, the brain and nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine system.  What it has discovered is that we can actually hyperstimulate our own immune systems through constant low-level stress.  The immune system, of which the adrenal glands are part and parcel, is complex and interconnected, but while it does respond to pathogens, it ultimately takes its orders from the emotional centers of the brain.  If we are under certain kinds of stress, the whole system activates, sending adrenaline and messenger chemicals throughout our systems.  This includes the fight-or-flight response triggers – uncertainty, conflict and lack of control.

If this continues at low level for years without what is called consummation – something that the body interprets as ending this abnormal state – the body will continue to assume that there is a present danger.  It will excrete adrenaline and hormones until the chemical balance and receptivity of the whole system is altered and the immune system begins to degrade.



Certain basic beliefs are strongly associated with illness.  The really interesting thing is that, while they all seem to be on the repressive side of the emotional spectrum, many of them can apply equally to Type A personalities, albeit in different ways.


–          I have to be strong

–          I am separate from everything else

–          I am responsible for everything

–          I can handle anything

–          I must be very ill to deserve care

–          I mustn’t be angry

–          I’m not wanted

–          I exist to serve others


Although articulated as beliefs, each of these generally boils down to a personality trait established in childhood, usually through relationships to parents.  In some cases, a domineering parent plagued by insecurity will try to remake a child in their preferred image; at the opposite end of the spectrum, emotionally absent parents starve the child of attention, let alone affection.  Whatever the case, the bottom line is that the child self-edits, modifies their own behavior and self-expression in order to try to regulate this key relationship that is being jeopardized.  Very often, the extent of the dysfunction isn’t realized until illness kicks in – a biological signal that something is badly out of balance.


The Way Out

Dr. Maté presents a seven-step program for changing this psychological disease process.  The steps, in brief, are:

  1. Acceptance – We have to recognize and accept the problems of the present, to gain information from our own negative emotional processes without letting them control us.  Only by accepting ourselves as we are can we begin to move forward.
  2. Awareness – This means regaining emotional awareness and the ability to recognize our own emotional truth.
  3. Anger – See below.
  4. Autonomy – We learn to express ourselves as distinct individuals in childhood, but many people were not adequately taught to do this by their parents, and must do so in order to recoup the emotional baggage of childhood and to move forward.
  5. Attachment – Childhood teaches us in short order whether the world is a loving and accepting place, or a dangerous place full of uncertainty.  This directly impacts our willingness to expose ourselves to the vulnerability of relationship.  Without attachment and emotional support, there is no healing.
  6. Assertion – Assertion means standing before ourselves and the world and acknowledging that we are who we are, that separate from all of the performative acts with which we try to establish our identity, separate from all the clutter and the tumult, we exist, unique and fundamentally worthy of existence.  It is letting go of the need to act.  By doing so, we cease to play the parts we have scripted for ourselves.
  7. Affirmation – Affirmation means embracing a direction, a set of fundamental values for which we will strive.  This means freeing ourselves to create, to build something of meaning to us, which means we must listen to ourselves and our own deeper desires.  It also means connection with the universe, with spiritual life, abandoning the belief that we are isolated and embracing the seeking and finding of the universal good beyond ourselves.



We will focus on step 3, because it seems in many ways to be the lynchpin.  Inability to express anger and constant expression of anger are two sides of the same coin.  In either case, the anger and the sources of anger are still in the system.  Many cancer sufferers are noted for their inability to express anger or even to feel it when they ought to, so deeply is it buried.  On the other hand, according to a study at Johns Hopkins, dominant and irascible personalities are an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease.

Both approaches to anger represent, in the words of Toronto psychotherapist Allen Kaplin, a fear of the genuine experience of anger.  Normal anger is both empowering and relaxing.  It is a surge of power responding to a threat, and in that moment of empowerment, the muscles and the whole system naturally relax.  Not exactly anger as portrayed on television!  Rage, on the other hand, is described by its sufferers fundamentally as a state of anxiety and fear.

And that is the clue.  Some children adapt to dysfunction in parental relationships by trying to manage those relationships through their own good behavior.  Others are seized by the anxiety of the tenuousness of this critical element of life, and begin to act out through bursts of rage.  In either case, the more anger is forbidden, the more guilt is attached to anger, the more abnormal, lasting and anxiety-ridden the experience of it becomes.  Some defend against the feeling by never expressing it, others by expressing it when it first appears so that they don’t have to experience it.

To change this dynamic means acknowledging anger, accepting the information it carries, experiencing it internally, and then deciding consciously whether or not to act on it.  Healthy anger stands up and says “I matter.”  It does not manifest as rage, but as the assertion of calm.  By lifting our engrained rejection of anger, it can come to serve its proper function – as a transient state designed to redress temporary problems, and then to naturally leave the system.

The bottom line, of course, is that for all of us, it’s critical to look at our emotional patterns if we really want to become RESILIENT people – and the works of Dr. Gabor Maté are a great place to start.  For one thing, until we disentangle all the coping mechanisms from our true personality, we don’t even know who we really are (a theme I discussed at some length in The 5 Pillars of Life).

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger