An Ice Bucket Of Ideas

My good friend, and filmmaking partner, David Beilinson challenged me to the ice bucket challenge.  I am of course pleased that this example of social viral action has led to a huge outpouring of financial support for research.  There have been many people who have minimized the amount of money raised, but it is undeniable that it is significant for more than simply financial reasons. Matthew Herper at Forbes did a good job of laying out why it’s a positive situation financially for ALS research, so I’m not going to go into those details.

However, I do have an issue with the challenge because I believe that this kind of fundraising is part of a pattern of outsourcing our healing. The stated goal here is to raise money to give to people in white coats so that they might come up with cure to heal us. Instead, I believe that we need to look inward, not outward, if we hope to reverse the effects of these diseases. Instead of pouring a cold bucket of water on my head, I am going to challenge you to watch this powerful video of Dr. Gabor Mate discussing the connection between the repression of our emotions and our health.

In his book, “When the Body Says No” Dr. Mate makes a direct connection between the repression of one’s emotions and ALS.  Shelly Page reviewed the book for the Ottowa Citizen in 2003 and in her first paragraph she focuses on Dr. Mate’s discussion of Lou Gehrig and his disease.

New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig was known as the Iron Horse because he refused to pull himself from the lineup regardless of injury or illness. In the 1930s, Gehrig set a record for consecutive games played — 2,130 — that would stand for six decades.

When his hands were X-rayed it was found that every one of his fingers had been broken, some more than once. He had sustained 17 fractures. Someone once described Gehrig “grinning crazily as a macabre dancer in a gruelling marathon.”

While Gehrig was known for his refusal to quit, years later, he also became known as the most famous person to be felled by ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative, muscle-wasting disease. ALS became known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

According to Vancouver physician and bestselling author Dr. Gabor Maté, those who develop Lou Gehrig’s disease share more in common with its namesake than just the illness. ALS patients the world over are frequently described as the “nicest people you could ever meet,” says Maté.

Like Gehrig, they never complain, don’t say a bad word about anyone, never admit or confront any fear, anxiety or sadness in their lives. Maté, who met many ALS patients working as the director of palliative care at Vancouver General Hospital, found that they never asked for help or admit to emotional or physical pain.

Instead, Maté claims they always tried to be cheerful. Even in the face of death, his patients spoke “casually of their deterioration or did so with engaging smiles.”

In his just-published book, When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, Maté wondered if his observations could be supported in the scientific literature. What he found — albeit not a lot — convinced him that something about ALS patients’ emotional-coping style might trigger their illnesses.

“Why Are Patients with ALS So Nice?” was the title of a paper presented by neurologists from the Cleveland Clinic at an international symposium in Munich a few years ago. Technologists conducting diagnostic testing on people suspected of having ALS would sometimes write “This patient cannot have ALS, he (or she) is not nice enough … ”

A 1970 study of 10 ALS patients said “hard, steady work without recourse to help from others was pervasive.”

In Maté’s book, he attempts to show that continuing emotional repression and psychological stress play a powerful role in the onset of chronic illness. In his more than two decades of medical practice, he noticed that those patients who developed cancers and chronic illnesses, such as the autoimmune diseases rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, lupus, as well as asthma, multiple sclerosis, and bowel disorders, have lived lives of excessive stress, often invisible to the individuals themselves. From an early age, many of them developed a psychological coping style that kept them out of touch with the signs of stress. They suppressed any negative emotions, especially anger, which triggered biochemical processes — or a predisposition to a certain illness — that led to illness.

My challenge to my friends is to try to open their minds to this profound connection between the repression of our emotions and our illness.  My challenge to ALS researchers is to devote some small percentage of the funds raised towards research that might illuminate this connection.

We interviewed Dr. Mate for our film “All the Rage” (a working title was “Story of Pain”).  Here is a clip from that interview. One way to become more aware of our own emotional role in our physical health is to take up Dr. Mate’s challenge below, and take some time to reflect back upon how many times in the last week we failed to say “no” even as our bodies told us we should.

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