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@Clues 2024

The Myth of Normal

Gabor Maté
"Myth of Normal" explores the rise in illness due to societal norms like stress & trauma. The key to health? Addressing these root causes.
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Book Summary

Chronic illness and mental illness are on the rise in Western countries. Dr. Gabor Maté believes this is not simply the result of genetics or bad luck but is also due to how we live our lives.

Maté argues that trauma can literally change the way our bodies function, leading to conditions such as chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, and heart disease. He also discusses the role of stress in our health and how it can trigger the release of stress hormones that can damage our bodies.

For example, nurses at the Cleveland Clinic noticed that they could often predict who would develop ALS, a degenerative disease. They would write in the patients' charts things like "she is too nice" or "he is not nice enough." The neurologists were surprised that the nurses' predictions were often correct.

Research has since supported the nurses' observations. One study found that patients with ALS are usually nice people. Another study found that people who repress anger are more likely to get cancer.

Maté believes that trauma and chronic stress are the root causes of many diseases. He says we should stop seeing disease as an individual problem and instead see it as a symptom of the unhealthy conditions many of us live in. He argues that we need to create a more compassionate society where people feel safe to express their emotions and believes that this is the only way to truly heal from disease.

The prevailing understanding of "normal" is false

One of the opening arguments from his book is the argument that "normal" is a myth. He believes that there is no such thing as a perfectly healthy person and that everyone experiences some degree of suffering or trauma in their lives.

Maté argues that the medical profession often pathologizes normal human experiences, such as sadness, anxiety, and anger. He believes that these experiences are often a sign that something is wrong in our lives, but that they are not necessarily signs of illness.

"There's an illusion we've built around normalcy. It dictates how we view mental health, addiction, and trauma, making it easy to perceive them as anomalies. This perspective needs to change. These are not isolated incidents, but a societal reflection of the deep-rooted trauma and disconnection we are collectively experiencing."

Gabor also argues that the concept of "normal" is often used to justify social inequality. He believes that we live in a society that is based on competition and individualism, and that this creates a lot of stress and anxiety for people since we’re effectively positioned against each other. He argues that this stress and anxiety can lead to physical and mental health problems but that these problems are often seen as "normal" because they are so common.

Gabor also believes that we need to change our understanding of what it means to be healthy. He argues that we need to see health as a state of wholeness, not as the absence of disease.

Internal conflict arises from the tension between individuality and the need for connection

One of the key factors that contribute to chronic illness and mental illness, according to Maté, is the conflict between acceptance and individuality. He argues that we live in a society that values conformity and sameness and that this can lead to people suppressing their true selves to fit in.

"We live in a society that values conformity and sameness. We are taught from a young age to fit in, to be like everyone else. But when we suppress our true selves in order to fit in, we pay a price. We lose our sense of authenticity, our sense of self-worth, and our ability to connect with others on a deep level."

This suppression of the self can have a number of negative consequences, including:

  • Increased stress levels
  • Reduced self-esteem
  • Difficulty forming healthy relationships
  • Increased risk of developing chronic illness or mental illness

Maté argues that we must find a way to balance acceptance and individuality. We need to learn to accept ourselves for who we are while allowing ourselves to be unique and different. This can be challenging, but it is essential for our health and well-being.

Maté offers a number of suggestions for how to achieve this balance, including:

  • Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment. This can help us to become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and to accept them without trying to change them.
  • Connecting with our emotions: Our emotions are a part of who we are, and they need to be acknowledged and expressed in order for us to be healthy. We need to learn to feel our emotions without judging them, and to express them in a healthy way.
  • Building healthy relationships: Healthy relationships provide us with support and acceptance. They allow us to be ourselves, and to feel safe and loved.
  • Finding meaning in our lives: Having a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives can give us a reason to get up in the morning. It can also help us to cope with stress and adversity.
"The good news is that we can learn to balance acceptance and individuality. We can learn to accept ourselves for who we are, while also allowing ourselves to be unique and different. This can be a challenge, but it is essential for our health and well-being."

Chronic and mental illnesses stem not just from genetics or bad luck, but also from lifestyle factors

When we experience trauma, our bodies go into a state of fight-or-flight. This is a normal and healthy response in the short term. But if we are exposed to chronic stress, our bodies can become stuck in this state. This can lead to a number of physical and mental health problems, including chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, depression, and anxiety.

"Trauma is not just an event that happens to us. It is also what we do with it. How we interpret the experience, talk about it, and relate to it all have a profound impact on our health. If we can find a way to integrate the trauma into our lives, make sense of it, and find meaning in it, we can begin to heal. But if we try to push it away, deny it, or pretend it didn't happen, then it will continue to haunt us physically and emotionally."

Maté also emphasizes the importance of connection in our lives. He argues that we are social creatures and must feel connected to others to be healthy. When we feel isolated or alone, our stress levels increase and our risk of developing chronic illness or mental illness increases.

So what can we do to reduce our chronic and mental illness risk? Maté believes that we need to change the way we live our lives. He suggests that we need to:

  • Reduce our exposure to trauma and stress. This might mean avoiding toxic relationships, learning to manage our stress, or seeking professional help if we have experienced trauma.
  • Build strong relationships. Having close relationships with people who care about us can help us to cope with stress and to feel supported.
  • Find meaning and purpose in our lives. When we have something to live for, it gives us a reason to get up in the morning and to keep going even when things are tough.
  • Take care of our bodies. This means eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.

We can't control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we respond. By changing our lives, we can reduce our risk of chronic and mental illness and improve our overall health and well-being.

Stress can trigger the release of stress hormones that can damage our bodies

When we suppress our emotions and needs can lead to chronic stress. The body's natural stress response is activated when we feel threatened or overwhelmed. The stress response involves the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body to fight or flee.

However, if we constantly suppress our emotions and needs, the stress response can become stuck in the "on" position. This can lead to a number of health problems, including:

  • Physical symptoms: such as headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and sleep problems.
  • Mental health problems: such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Immune system problems: such as increased susceptibility to infections.
  • Accelerated aging: due to the shortening of telomeres, which are protective caps on the ends of chromosomes.

The connection between our mind and body is complex and bidirectional. This means our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can all affect our physical health and vice versa. The stress response is a natural and adaptive response that helps us to cope with threats and challenges. However, in modern society, we are often exposed to chronic stress. This is because of factors such as work, relationships, finances, and social media.

Our culture is directly contributing to our chronic illness

Maté argues that our culture is toxic. He cites a number of factors that contribute to this toxicity, including economic insecurity, discrimination, consumerism, and lack of control over our lives.

Economic insecurity

Maté argues that economic insecurity is a major source of stress for many people. He points out that the average person has had to work harder and more hours than previous generations to keep up financially. This leaves less time for family and relationships, and it can also lead to feelings of anxiety and insecurity.

"The culture of scarcity and competition that dominates our world is a breeding ground for stress, anxiety, and depression."

Maté also discusses the impact of discrimination on health. He cites studies that show that people who face discrimination have worse health outcomes than those who do not. This is because discrimination can lead to chronic stress, which can damage the body and mind.

"Discrimination is a major source of stress for many people, and it can have a devastating impact on health."

Maté argues that a high level of consumerism also characterizes our culture. He points out that we are constantly bombarded with advertising campaigns that set out to make us feel insecure and insufficient to sell us products that promise to fulfill our needs. This can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and anxiety, which can contribute to poor health.

"Consumerism is a major driver of stress in our culture. We're constantly bombarded with messages that tell us we're not good enough and that we need to buy more stuff to be happy."
Lack of control

Finally, Maté argues that our lack of control over our lives is also a source of stress. He points out that many people feel like they have little control over their jobs, finances, or even their bodies. This can lead to feelings of powerlessness and frustration, contributing to poor health.

"Our lack of control over our lives is also a major source of stress. We feel powerless to change the things that are important to us, and this can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression."

Most trauma starts in childhood, and our society undermines the needs of our children

Maté also postulates that childhood trauma can deeply affect our mental and physical health. He underscores studies indicating that children exposed to trauma are more likely to manifest various health issues, such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and addiction. Maté attributes the detrimental impact of trauma to the interference it causes in the brain's stress response system development. 

An Examination of Society's Disregard for Children's Needs

The book asserts that society often overlooks the needs of children. He mentions that numerous children grow up in homes marked by violence, neglect, or abuse. Additionally, he contends that our educational institutions often prioritize test scores over the emotional health of students.

"We're failing our children as a society. They are being nurtured in an environment that is increasingly noxious, with scant measures in place to shield them from trauma."

Maté believes that these aspects contribute to creating a harmful environment for children, culminating in trauma and other health issues. He advocates for a societal shift towards a more encouraging and caring environment for children.

The Significance of Stable Childhood Attachment

Children are highly susceptible to their surroundings, and occurrences during their formative years lay the groundwork for everything that follows. Their health, brain development, and future relationships are all shaped by their initial experiences.

A key developmental requirement for children is a stable and consistent attachment to their caregivers, denoting the need to feel cherished, supported, and safe. Securely attached children are more likely to be healthy, content, and well-adjusted.

However, not all children are fortunate enough to form secure attachments due to contributing factors like parental stress, neglect, or abuse. Children lacking secure attachments are more likely to face difficulties with emotional control, social skills, and self-esteem.

The Detrimental Effects of a Culture that Undermines Secure Attachment

Often, our culture undermines the necessity for secure attachment in children. For instance, many parenting manuals recommend parents to sleep-train infants by letting them "cry it out," teaching children their needs are insignificant, and they cannot depend on their caregivers for solace.

Another aspect where our culture undermines secure attachment is how we treat expectant mothers and new mothers. Many women feel secluded and unsupported during this period, preventing them from establishing a healthy bond with their babies.

The Repercussions of Insecure Attachment

Insecure attachment can significantly affect a child's health and well-being. Children with insecure attachments are more prone to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Moreover, they might struggle to establish healthy relationships in adulthood.

The Path to Promote Secure Attachment

To foster secure attachment in children, we can make several changes. First, it's crucial to cultivate a culture that bolsters parents and families by providing them with access to resources and support and by challenging detrimental parenting notions prevalent in society.

Second, we must reconsider our treatment of pregnant and new mothers, ensuring they receive the necessary support to bond with their infants and gain confidence in their parenting capabilities.

Lastly, educating parents about the significance of secure attachment is essential, providing them with the knowledge and tools to establish such attachments with their children.

The medical system is not equipped to deal with the root causes of chronic illness and mental illness

Dr. Mate argues that our medical system is not set up to deal with the root cause of chronic and mental illness. He writes, "The medical model of illness is based on the belief that disease is caused by a specific germ or other biological agent, and that the best way to treat it is to attack that agent with drugs or surgery."

However, he argues that this model is ineffective for many chronic and mental illnesses. He writes, "The vast majority of chronic illnesses are not caused by a single germ or other biological agent. They are caused by a complex interplay of factors, including genetics, environment, and lifestyle."

For example, Mate cites the case of chronic pain. He writes, "Only a small percentage of people with chronic pain get better with medication. The vast majority of them need to address the underlying causes of their pain, such as stress, anxiety, and depression."

Gabor also thinks that our medical system is not set up to help people address these underlying causes. He writes, "The medical system is designed to treat symptoms, not to solve problems. It's not set up to help people change their lifestyles or learn how to manage their stress."

As a result, Mate argues that many people with chronic and mental illness are trapped in a cycle of ineffective treatment. He writes, "They go from doctor to doctor, from medication to medication, and they never get better. They end up feeling hopeless and helpless."

He offers a different approach to treating chronic and mental illness, which he captured nicely when he said, "We need to shift our focus from treating symptoms to solving problems. We need to help people address the underlying causes of their illness, such as stress, anxiety, and depression."

Mate suggests we can do this by providing people with lifestyle counseling, stress management training, and other forms of non-medical therapy. This, in conjunction with some of the other societal changes he recommends regarding our stressful work conditions, more support for households and mothers, and ensuring we provide nurturing environments for children. 

Healing is about becoming whole again

Healing is possible. It is a process of reintegration, of acknowledging our suffering and the suffering of the world, and of learning to confront the wounds that have caused the disconnection within ourselves. 

"Wholeness is not perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life."

While it is difficult to detoxify our culture, there is still hope for healing. It is the natural movement towards wholeness where we eliminate the fracture within ourselves. If disease begins with a separation from the self, emotions, and others, then healing must involve reintegration.

One powerful strategy for healing is Compassionate Inquiry. Compassion is an attitude of acceptance without judgment. It allows for genuine and open inquiry without presuming to have all the answers.

To practice Compassionate Inquiry, you can ask yourself some introspective questions. First, ask yourself:

  • When do I struggle to say no in the areas of my life that matter, and how does that impact me?
  • When have I denied following my urge to say yes?

These questions help you identify the ways in which you deny your emotions and needs and prioritize others.

Next, ask yourself:

  • What bodily signals have I been ignoring?
  • What symptoms could be trying to give me a warning that I need to change how I’m living?

These questions help you focus on the mind-body connection and identify where emotional stress is held in your body.

Finally, identify the hidden story behind your inability to say no. Where did you learn these stories? This is about untangling the narrative to see how your responses and behaviors once served you.

This healing work is about learning to hear your authentic, essential self. Once you have achieved that, you can free yourself from the automatic responses and adaptations to stress, adversity, and trauma that keep you disconnected.

"The path to wholeness is not a straight line. It is a journey of ups and downs, of progress and setbacks."