The negative, often subtle effects of trauma can build up over time—and unless you do the necessary work to release that stored trauma, those unprocessed emotions may start to mess with your mental and physical health.
It’s a concept physician and renowned speaker Gabor Maté, M.D., bestselling author of The Myth Of Normal, sees all the time (and has personally dealt with). “As a family physician and a palliative care doctor, I began to notice that who got sick and who didn’t wasn’t accidental. People’s emotional traumas in childhood had a significant resonance in their adult illnesses,” he shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. “Whether we’re talking about chronic fatigue or other autoimmune conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or malignancy, depression, anxiety, or psychosis, I began to notice that those illnesses were not random strokes of bad luck, but they were outcomes of a process that had begun with childhood adversity.”
In other words: Your past traumas, whether big or small, can impact your well-being in a major way. So if you’re serious about preventing disease and enhancing healthspan, you need to focus on healing those psychological wounds. Below, Maté offers three tips to do just that:
1. Understand multi-generational trauma.
“95% of trauma is multi-generational,” says Maté. “You unwittingly pass it on.” Meaning, your trauma might actually be a byproduct of your parents’ (or grandparents’) experience that wasn’t quite resolved by the time they had you—and that can affect how you interact with the world. Remember, trauma is not about a specific event. “It’s the wound that you’re carrying,” Maté reminds us. That wound usually runs deep.
So the question becomes: How do you identify trauma that’s not exactly yours? The thing is, it actually starts with looking inward. “The more people understand their own traumas, the more [they] see with clear eyes the traumas of others,” says Maté. “The nervous system has a memory in it that is not necessarily conscious, but the wound will still show up in the present moment.”
That’s why Maté likes to ask folks about the last time they were upset with somebody. “Most of the time people are upset, it’s about something else,” he says. “It’s easy for me to tell about somebody’s childhood trauma if they tell me the last time they were really upset with somebody in their lives. Usually, it’s about old stuff.”
2. Lean on your relationships.
At the same time, quality relationships are crucial for healing from trauma. “Our biology is dependent on our psychological states, and that depends on our social relationship with others,” Maté says. “That’s just a scientific fact about human beings.”
At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Human beings are social creatures; we are averse to loneliness. That’s why extreme loneliness is considered a risk factor for mortality1, says Maté. “When you’re lonely, you are likely to get sicker faster and to die quicker of your disease.”
Moral of the story? Focus on quality social connections. In fact, you might unconsciously attract people into your lift with similar traumas, says Maté. “We always find somebody at the same level of traumatization, which means that in a good relationship, people can grow up together,” he notes. You don’t want to foster any codependency, but if both of you are open and willing to heal those traumas together, Maté says that’s a wonderful opportunity.
3. Learn how to say no.
Most people have trouble saying no, says Maté—which is intriguing, considering “no” is often a baby’s very first word. “Nature’s agenda is that we should all develop into independent human beings with our own sense of what we want and what we don’t want, our own sense of values, our own sense of perspective on the world, our own desires,” he shares. “In other words: Nature wants to set a boundary between ourselves and other people’s will.”
So what happens? Well, according to Maté, people receive messages in early childhood that in order to be acceptable, they have to be compliant. “They have to suppress their own will, their own needs, their own perspective, and they have to serve others,” he says. As a result, they feel uncomfortable saying no as they grow older.
Now, this is problematic, because if you don’t know how to say no, “your yeses don’t mean a thing,” says Maté. If you begrudgingly say yes to a task, you can also grow resentful, which can have physiological impacts on your body. “Furthermore, you’ll be tired afterwards, because you’re already tired to start with,” says Maté. “So not saying no has impacts on you.” Consider it your sign to set good, healthy boundaries.
Your emotional well-being can totally influence your physical health, just take it from Maté: “We can’t separate the mind from the body, the individual from the environment,” he says. Everyone’s road to trauma healing looks a little different, but if you don’t mend your deep, psychological wounds, it’s nearly impossible to stay well.