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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Emotional Competence and Autoimmunity

In his illuminating book, When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease ConnectionDr. Gabor Maté, introduces this interesting concept of emotional competence in relation to autoimmunity and stress-disease.  His clear and simply spoken statements of the workings of the psycho-immunology-endocrine system is refreshingly understandable and straight forward.  This book is definitely worth a read for a better understanding of the physiology of this system's relation to disease and the stress response.  Also, an additional bonus is his erudite position on the now-rampant autoimmune disorder problems that have evolved in western culture and their possible holistic management.

Such a great descriptive phrase:  emotional competence.  What does it mean?

Mate describes the four requirements for same being:
1. the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress.
2.  the ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries.
3.  the facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past.  What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs, not the unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood.  If distinctions between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or the threat of loss where none exists.  and
4.  the awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others.

Mate claims the absence of any one of these criteria, disrupts homeostasis, leading to ill health.

art credit:  David William Reed
What are autoimmune disorders?  There are almost 200 identified autoimmune disorders ranging from mild to lethal.  Most people who have one, ultimately will have a few others in addition. The most familiar to the general population are:  Addison's disease, Grave's disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis,  Alopecia Areata, Aplastic Anemia, Cardiomyopathy, Celiac, Chron's, Fibromyalgia, Raynaud's, Psoriasis, Ulcerative Colitis, Schlerodema and Restless Leg Syndrome to name a few.  An autoimmune response is when the immune system recognizes healthy tissue or cells as invasive and attack, creating inflammation and damage to tissue/muscle/bone/organ.  It's an error message to our (psycho)immune (endocrine) system and it results in havoc to our health.  There are no exempt systems.  Mate suggests it's base is in emotional incompetence: learned, suppressed responses possibly believed to be needed for survival (especially at a young age) carried into adulthood as a habit leading to a physiological dysfunction.  Mixed messages swallowed, a turning away from one's truth in order to live.  Some examples of these emotional burdens are, "the (always) good/compliant/cooperative girl",  "the perfect son", the child never allowed to have or show anger for the convenience of the adult (avoidance of rejection).  A common mixed message is: "you can do anything in life you want to/you can't do anything in life you might want to, you're not good enough."  According to Mate, the messages are often subtle, insidious, originally related to survival, remaining long after survival is a moot issue.  They become a modus operandi, a way to live a life; hence the chronic dysfunction becomes embedded, ultimately becoming dis-ease.  The body becomes confused and attacks/eats away at itself.

art credit:  Jose Sudek
Some reminders may be needed here before we erroneously jump to the conclusion that autoimmune disorders are purely psych/emotional based.  No disease has a single cause.  We are complex organisms influenced by DNA, social and environmental input.  All three aspects running amok creates a 'perfect storm', insuring disease outcomes.  As we don't have much influence over the DNA aspect, it is possible we can impact the social and environmental factors. 

Stress is a disturbance of the body's internal balance in response to perceived threat, including deprivation, a disruption of psychological harmony or emotional nourishment.  The word "healing" has an ancient derivation of the word "whole".  It's a phenomenon of finding balance and harmony.  Looking at disease as a cause-and-effect model of science is incomplete and erroneous, because it's not one cause, not one effect, but a myriad of influences on this sensitive and complex organism.  Perhaps viewing disrupted homeostasis or disease from a biopsychosocial model is a more whole approach.

Mate says: "Life is possible only within certain well-defined limits, internal or external.  We can no more survive, say high-sugar levels in our bloodstream than we can withstand high levels of radiation emanating from a nuclear explosion.  The role of self-regulation, whether emotional or physical, may be likened to that of a thermostat ensuring the temperature in a  home remains consistent despite the extremes of the weather conditions outside."  He goes on to say, "Children and infant animals have virtually no capacity for biological self-regulation; their internal biological states-- heart rates, hormone levels, nervous system activity-- depend completely on their relationships with caregiving grown-ups. Emotions such as love, fear or anger serve the needs of protecting the self while maintaining essential relationships.  Psychological stress is whatever threatens the young creature's perception of a safe relationship with the adults, because any disruption in the relationship will cause turbulence in the internal milieu."

art credit:  Snail Scott
We see the importance of the four foundations of wellness:  optimum nutrition, adequate rest, connection to the creative/divine, and exercise.  As I mentioned in my post Social Beings, nourishing social relationships should be part of these foundations.  Western culture at large is set up to be nuclear, stressing hyper-independence. In another scenario, family/dear friends are in possibly far-away places. A connection with those you love and whom love you is a marker to good health.  Conversations that make you feel connected, affirm you as valuable, that reinforce one's life purpose is an absolute requirement for keeping our psychosocialimmunity strong and intact.  The "error messages" received earlier in life, with awareness and courage can be healed working through a creative process, engaging in a healing with a bodywork practitioner or with traditional psychological professionals.  But the day to day love connections we have is what sustains us, even can correct that which has been undermining both in our past indoctrinations and our health.

The pursuit of self awareness, self care and a more mindful approach to the daily details of our lives positions us in a place of availability.  Availability in recognizing patterns that serve and don't serve us and a prayer of a chance of healing the patterns that work against our wellness and wholeness.  Emotional competence may not be a (present) given, but it can be earned and developed.

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