adjective | psy·​cho·​so·​mat·​ic

of, relating to, involving, or concerned with bodily symptoms caused by mental or emotional disturbance.

Psychosomatic. It’s not a word that you come across every day, is it? Perhaps you’ve never heard of it before, and you have no idea what on earth it means (or perhaps you’re a vocab whizz). Whatever you know about the subject to date, learning about it is important, especially if you want to understand the extent of the impact that poor mental health can have upon your body and your overall wellbeing. But what does it actually mean, dictionary definitions aside?

A psychosomatic illness is when physical symptoms – such as pain or discomfort — have a mental cause. For example, if you’re dealing with high levels of stress, you may find that you start to lose your hair, or that your immune system is incredibly weak as a result. If you suffer from depression, you may also have a low-functioning immune system and a lack of energy. Psychosomatic symptoms are very real for many people, but how does it all happen?

What are the causes of psychosomatic illness?

Though there are a wealth of scientific theories about psychosomatic illnesses out there, their causes can be differing and varied. One way that it is explained is that our bodies are like cooking pots full of boiling water. If we lift the lid and let some steam out every now and again, we can cope with all of the pressure that we’re facing, but if we don’t, then there is going to be some kind of break, probably at the weakest point.

Often, your immune system is the first element to say OK then, I quit, and succumb to the effects of extreme pressure. This means that the overwhelming feeling that results from your mental difficulties — whether it’s stress, depression, anxiety or something else — (kinda) has no real choice but to come out in a physical way. Of course, there is some complicated science here, but the overall idea is that your body simply can’t cope.

The extreme effect that this can have on the body

Whilst it may seem as though having mild neck pain as a result of stress isn’t too challenging to live with, there are many examples of extremely severe psychosomatic illnesses. Anxiety is one of the main triggers of physical deterioration, and many suffers report difficulty breathing, intense stomach pain, excessive sweating and many other symptoms. A high proportion of people who suffer from mental illness are impacted in some way.

Taking one case study to prove just how significant this can be, neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan discusses the impact that the brain can have upon the bodies of her patients. One woman, who claimed to experience the symptoms of being blind, showed no issues in the visual pathway tests and brain scans conducted. Other patients she cared for also lost the ability to walk or use their hands due to mental conditions. These are all (extremely serious) examples of psychosomatic illnesses.

The stigma surrounding psychosomatic conditions

Psychosomatic symptoms, whilst not uncommon according to medical professionals, are highly stigmatised throughout wider society. As O’Sullivan notes, the woman who claimed to experience blindness was mocked by others, as they whispered that there would be ‘no Oscars for that performance’. Despite the very genuine (and very scary) reality for sufferers, it can be dismissed by those outside of medical circles as an unrealistic act.

On top of this, it is a largely misunderstood phenomenon, and because of the general feeling that it seems almost impossible, many people simply reject the claims that mental illness and stress can cause physical symptoms. This means that many sufferers refrain from discussing what they are experiencing — even with healthcare professionals — out of a fear of appearing ‘mad’ or coming across as somebody who is fabricating the truth.

How can this affect people’s lives?

For those who suffer from psychosomatic symptoms, life can be a lot more difficult. Not only do they have to manage mental health problems or severe stress, but they also deal with the physical pain and illnesses that come with them. The physical effects can lead to even more stress (due to the time that needs to be taken off work, for example) and the cycle can be a vicious one that is difficult to escape without professional help.

Another problem (rooted in the previously discussed stigma) is the reluctance to seek help from others. Believing that psychosomatic illnesses simply aren’t real, even the individual themselves can come to believe that they are going ‘crazy’. With widespread misunderstanding, it can be hard to talk to friends and family members, too, so the sufferer may find themselves heading even deeper into their mental and physical conditions.

How to deal with psychosomatic illnesses

If you believe that you may be suffering from psychosomatic symptoms, then it is important to go and visit your doctor in order to discuss methods of treatment. If you’re worried about this, just remember that your symptoms are real, and your doctor will have seen cases similar to yours in the past. If it is affecting your life, you deserve to have the right assistance to get through the pain and stress of your condition. Whilst your doctor may advise you to take part in CBT, or another treatment plan that focuses on the underlying mental causes of your psychosomatic symptoms, there are also some ways that you can deal with the effects of these illnesses yourself. Of course, this is dependent upon a few things, such as the severity of your symptoms and their root causes, so seek medical advice beforehand. There are some things that you could try, however:

  • Identifying your triggers: you may want to attempt to identify what triggers your symptoms, so that you can control your exposure to these types of situations until you access long-term solutions.
  • Looking after your immune system: keeping your body healthy is imperative if you want to lessen the likelihood of psychosomatic symptoms. Eat a balanced diet, incorporating vitamins and whey protein if this is necessary.
  • Talking to people: speaking about your psychosomatic illness allows you to take the first step towards the support that you need. Talk to somebody that you trust about your symptoms, and the way that you feel.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay