In the book, The Myth of Normal, Gabor Maté, physician and author, encourages ordinary people to become more informed about the link between the body, the nervous system, the endocrinological systems and the psychology of the mind. The stresses we experience, the traumas we inherit or incur and other environmental factors, can lead to diseases and disorders. Over time, our bodies struggle to heal when these factors are not addressed.
While it might be difficult to determine now, I often wondered if my mother’s dementia and my father’s Parkinson’s were brought on or exacerbated by extraordinary circumstances within their household when they were 78 years old. As my parents aged, they did not slow down. The household stressors of raising their young granddaughter for a time led to more challenges than they were willing to admit.
In one of his first articles as a medical columnist for The Globe and Mail in 1993, Maté wrote, “When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.” He believes the body’s way of saying “no,” or in most cases, “no more,” is transformed into a disease.
What is it our bodies most want to tell us when we are cold, aching or chilled? Are we lonely, do we need a walk? Have we been caring too much for others, or do we simply need to slow down? Or is the past coming back to us in pieces we need to explore and open to the light?
How Trauma Affects the Body
The physician is quick to define trauma and how we talk about it. First, injury is what happens to us, and trauma (the stress of it) is what happens inside of us, how we carry it within our bodies or how we respond. Second, there are widespread traumas, such as surviving a concentration camp, and there are singular, more personal traumas, such as a child dying at birth.
If not faced, the pain from these traumas leads to repressive tendencies to “move on” from the tragedy in our lives. We’ve seen this with concentration camp and war survivors, with those who have endured abuse, with immigrants who have left the homeland, with anyone who has ever heard the phrase “get over it.”
We get over it. Our bodies do not.
Most of Maté’s book weaves pertinent research with anecdotes about systemic diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis (MS). He notes how our strategies to “self-cope” without seeking help, without disclosing the truth we’ve experienced no matter how big or small, leads to inflammation in our bodies causing disease to take hold.
How Stress Impacts DNA
According to Maté, we might seek our answers to what he terms psychoneuroendocrinology, or the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body, from sources like telomeres.
What are telomeres? Telomeres are minute structures of DNA at the end of our chromosomes. In his book, Maté likens telomeres to the plastic aglets placed at the end of shoelaces to keep them from fraying. According to a 2015 publication in Sciencedaily.com, “Cell division happens throughout life, telomeres get shorter and shorter as we age. When the telomeres run out, the cell becomes inactive or dies, which leads to disease.” If we can track the length and stability of these telomeres, we can learn more about our health and our aging.
In discussing telomeres in The Myth of Normal, Dr. Elissa Epel, Ph.D, a Professor and Vice Chair in the Department of Psychiatry, at the University of California, San Francisco, shares, “We started with about 10,000 when we were a baby and get down to 4,000 when we die.” When cells divide, telomeres shrink too. “And thus, immune function is impacted, and we fall more susceptible to illnesses,” Epel explains.
For instance, twins carry similar genes, but one twin might have a longer life expectancy than the other due to divorce, children or other stressors in their lives. “The stress shortens their telomeres. Similar results have been seen in caregivers of people living with dementia,” Epel shares.
The above refers to a study published in 2003, with 119 men and women caregivers of a spouse living with dementia and 106 non-caregivers with a mean age of 70 entering into the research. Levels of health attributes and proinflammatory cytokine (IL-6) were measured across six years. The levels of IL-6 rose four times higher for the caregivers than for those without loved ones to focus on. The study demonstrated that long-time stressors detract from healthy aging as easily as acute injuries do.
The chronic stressors caregivers incur not only impact the caregiver but others around them. In Maté’s book, a Native American tells of a practice of keeping angry people away from a pregnant woman so the child in the womb does not absorb the negative energy. Creating safe practices to relieve your stress and processing your own trauma away from your duties of caregiving through therapy or body movement, such as yoga, will go a long way toward cementing a healthy relationship between a caregiver and a loved one.
If we better understand stress and its impacts, and if communities provide more education about, and in support of, the discoveries of our traumas big and small, we will find healing. We might have to give up working out to recover from injury, slow down in our lives to face our truths or even change relationships in order to confront the conflicts and move forward in our life.
Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press). A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Still Point Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, Ovunque Siamo, Belt Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and Italian Americana (forthcoming). Read more at annettejwick.substack.com.