Like every other young doctor in the 1970s, I came of age in medicine knowing absolutely zero about the mind-body connection. My medical specialty was endocrinology, the field that deals with hormones. As a young doctor I was fascinated with how the tiniest secretion of chemicals could make someone afraid, courageous, angry, sexually aroused, or hungry in a matter of seconds. The secret to Dr. Jekyll becoming Mr. Hyde lies in a molecule! That discovery sparked my imagination, and I originally thought I’d be content to stay in the laboratory examining the effects of hormones, because their actions and interactions are astonishingly complex.
But when I went into private practice, I saw the devastating effect of hormones firsthand. Stress hormones were culprits in disorders that could ruin people’s lives, often in cruel social ways. “He’s lazy and dull” is the stigma attached too often to thyroid deficiency. Soldiers have been anxious about seeming to be cowards for centuries, but another hormone, adrenaline, leads to flight as much as fight. In addition, when the adrenaline rush is over, the body is physically depleted. Expose a soldier to enough situations where fight-or-flight is triggered, and the result is shell shock. Countless combatants have accused themselves of being cowards — and were stigmatized by fellow soldiers — because they were simply exhausted at the hormonal level. This stigma didn’t begin to fade until it was realized that every soldier will become shell shocked given enough time at the front lines. No moral failing is involved; the stigma was incredibly unfair.