In 1946, a John Hopkins study showed that cancer patients tend to deny and repress conflictual emotions and impulses to a higher degree than do other people. Gabor Mate, author of, When the Body Says No, indicates that there may be a cancer type; those who have difficulty expressing anger may be more prone to auto-immune suppression and susceptibility to cancer. This describes my mother perfectly; she was so angry, partially because of her own childhood, and yet her coping reactions were repressive.
My mother’s cancer started in her breast, and eventually moved to her lungs; a type of cancer linked to a tendency to “bottle up” emotions. Mate also says that habitual repression of emotion (like mother like daughter!) leaves a person in a situation of chronic stress, which creates a biochemical imbalance in the body. That biochemical imbalance affects the nervous system: the same nervous system that is intimately involved in the regulation of immune responses and of inflammation.
We are told by our doctors that our dis-eases – diabetes, RA, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, Crohn’s, lupus, MS, and even spinal and nerve pain – are caused by our immune system being triggered into an excessive response that sparks inflammation, which in turn alters and affects vital organs, damages nerves and synapses, and breaks down tissues. We are told that the thing that pulls that trigger might be a virus or bacteria, a genetic predisposition, or some other, currently unknown, pathogen.
What if the answer is simpler than that? What if the trigger also involved our emotions, and our emotional environments – as children? We’ve all experienced a greater or lesser degree of trauma and stress during our growing up, usually that we can’t remember and that we have somaticized. What if overwhelming stress or trauma in our past caused physical dysfunction in the present? What if overwhelming stress in our present lives is affecting our systems now?
I have inherited my father’s coloring, quick brain, and ability to pack suitcases or boxes in a car with the most efficiency, while the shape of my figure, face, and eyes comes from my mother, as does my laugh and love of reading. I may also have inherited their tendencies toward mental illness, depression, addiction, and repression. The emotional situation in my family required that I not express my feelings, that I strive for peace, and that I negate all bodily and emotional needs.
My parents taught me that anger was unacceptable to them, and yet they both generated it like nuclear reactors; both of my parents depressed and angry. I think my RA isn’t just about my immune system, and whatever viral or bacterial event triggered massive inflammation and dysfunction, I think it’s also about rage: my parents’, that swirled around me, and my own, buried deep inside.
Most of us know that the stress response (also called Fight/Flight/Freeze) is a reaction to emotional or physical trauma. Something we perceive as dangerous or traumatic triggers us to either stand and fight, run away, or just freeze in fear. The stress response itself is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, and cycles back and forth between adrenal production for energy and action, and cortisol production for calming the response. I remember being in a constant state of vigilance throughout my childhood because if you never know what you’re going to get as a response, you try not to do much of anything.
When the stress response is chronically “on”, activated by trauma or negative emotions, adrenal glands lose the ability to keep up and the ensuing cortisol depletion allows for an overactive immune response: chronically overstimulated immune responses can cause the system to attack the organs. Diseases of trauma, like autoimmune dysfunction, reflect the ongoing seesaw imbalance of these two hormones, which causes a malfunctioning immune system. Apparently a blunted adrenal response can go hand in hand with a susceptibility to inflammation. Hello rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, diabetes, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and possibly even cancer.
I believe that the emotional atmosphere surrounding my childhood caused just such an ongoing chemical stress response, resulting in an exhausted hormonal system and imbalanced immune system. My vigilance continued, the fight/freeze response activated; my hormonal system continued to overproduce adrenaline and cortisol production struggled to keep up; and my immune system must have struggled to function correctly.
All of those feelings – mine and my parents – and all of those chemicals and hormones just smoldered in my systems and my tissues – until a match was struck. My mother died – the most stressful event I’d ever experienced – and twenty years of caretaking and suppressed emotions pushed my body too far. At twenty-one, the RA flared into life, and began to burn me from the inside with inflammation.
But this is only one side – the physical side – of the complex coin that is my disease. If living in the trauma and stress of my parent’s atmosphere of repressed anger and depression led to constant hormonal imbalance and adrenaline and cortisol overproduction and exhaustion, causing an overloaded and reactionary immune system, which predisposed me to the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis…what did my own rage lead to?
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