In the world of self-care, it’s becoming more and more widely understood how improving physical health can benefit our minds. A balanced diet and exercise — in addition to helping our bodies — can relieve stress, increase energy, improve sleep, and even help alleviate depression and anxiety.
But that mind-body link works in both directions. It’s really not uncommon for life events, especially ones that are stressful or traumatic, to lead to physical pain and other chronic problems with the body. And yet, while we intuitively accept the idea of a healthy body boosting a healthy mind, we often compartmentalize physical symptoms and assume they are rooted in our bodies. It might take an outsider — a trusted friend or loved one, or even a medical doctor — to suggest the possibility that our affliction may in fact be rooted in an emotional issue.
What Is Psychosomatic Illness?
Toward the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud coined the term “conversion disorder” to describe a condition when symptoms that cannot be explained by organic ailments are determined to be the result of an unconscious conflict. For example, if someone experienced a paralyzed arm, but no disease was present, then, Freud theorized, their emotions were the likely cause. While neurology continues to use that term, psychology refers to these as “psychosomatic illness.”
Common forms of psychosomatic illness include “agita” — a word that, appropriately enough, can refer to both indigestion or anxiety — gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, or chronic pain. Severe headaches, such as migraines, might be attributable to tension and stress. What may appear as a heart condition could actually be a panic attack or anxiety. Our minds are very powerful. They can prevent us from feeling our emotions as emotions, and manifest them instead as physical symptoms such as sweat, stomachaches, headaches, body shakes and a pounding heart.
Don’t Take it Personally
When people hear the words “psychosomatic illness,” they often take it very personally and become defensive. They believe they are being accused of lying or making it up. But even if someone suggests your illness is “all in your head,” that doesn’t mean you are crazy. The physical symptoms are real, and the unexplained pain is indicating that something is wrong. Your mind has chosen to convert your psychic pain into physical pain, but that pain is real.
Everyone experiences physical symptoms when they are unhappy or suffering from anxiety. It’s a part of being human, and it doesn’t mean you’re weak. When life is hard, people handle it differently. There are those of us who get angry or complain, sleep a lot or stop sleeping, overeat or avoid food, soothe with alcohol or drugs, or yes, experience physical pain. One way isn’t better than the other. They are all imperfect reactions that indicate that something is wrong.
Where the mind goes, the body follows
Just as the mind can afflict the body, it can also be employed to help heal it. Consider psychotherapy if you are experiencing symptoms you suspect may be brought on by psychological stresses. A psychoanalytically-trained therapist, who understands the brain’s ability to intensify pain that may exist, or even conjure it, can help you understand how your thoughts, emotions and physical symptoms are connected, and how each one can impacts the other.
Neuroscience has proven that brains have plasticity, meaning we can change the wiring in our brains. And our emotional state is a reflection of our thought patterns and beliefs. Having a false or distorted belief system can stand in the way of emotional well-being, especially if we internalize failure and allow feelings of low self-worth. Talking to a therapist brings our inner world out into the open, creating an opportunity to explore how thoughts and actions and mind and body are informing each other, within a strong therapeutic relationship built on safety and trust. For many clients, talking to an experienced mental health professional is a new experience which allows for positive change to take place. Once you fully understand what is happening between your body and mind, you can begin to heal.