It’s now a widely accepted that some persistent medical conditions that appear to have no apparent physical cause can be associated with psychological causes. This process is known as “somatisation”. In her book “Your body speaks your mind” Deb Shapiro gives an example of a simple way to demonstrate the effect thinking has on the body: hold your arm straight out in front of you at shoulder height, think of something that makes you feel sad, then have someone press down on your arm while you try to resist. Repeat the exercise, only this time be thinking of something that makes you feel happy. Most people report feeling it was difficult to resist the pressure when feeling sad, yet when focusing on happy thoughts the arm becomes much stronger and able to resist. It’s a fact that the mind and body are intimately connected; for example, emotions can be expressed through the body in natural ways like tears from sadness, blushing from embarrassment or a racing heart from excitement.
However, it’s when the effects are overwhelming and affect our wellbeing that problems arise. A common example: a child who complains of stomach pain and vomits every Monday morning can experience their physical symptoms as very real, but there is a high likelihood that there is anxiety over some aspect of school life involved and it is this that needs dealing with. Unfortunately, it is not always as easy as this to identify possible somatisation, as many existing illnesses can simply be worsened by mental tension and this is referred to as psychosomatic. Someone not aware of his or her depression might find it expressed somatically as extreme fatigue, just as anxiety might manifest as neck and back pain, and these symptoms might continue for years.
A recent study of 100 consecutive pain clinic attenders found 59% had depression and anxiety; although how much of that percentage is the cause or the result of the pain is unknown, it still shows a strong link between mental health and pain. It’s a fact that when we have physical pain it can act as a distraction from mental anguish. People who self harm often claim the pain helps release their tension and anxiety, recent amputees can experience intense pain in the area of the nonexistent body part- perhaps the mind defending against the psychological shock of the loss? Some psychologists think that some somatic symptoms are caused by a heightened sensitivity to internal sensations, a hyper-awareness of the body’s minor discomforts and pains. Catastrophic thinking can lead to exaggerated fears, such as a headache being a sign of a brain tumour, and uncontrolled anxiety about this can set up a vicious cycle making the physical symptom feel worse. Understandably, it can be the cause of great anger and frustration for a person to accept from a doctor that a condition might have a psychological factor when their pain and suffering is all too real, particularly as for many people there is still a stigma attached to mental health issues.
Can therapy help? In counselling, as well as dealing with current issues, we work to become aware of past issues that may have a negative influence on our present state. Unfortunately counselling provided by doctors’ surgeries can be all too brief; I think this undermines its importance in the eyes of the public; deep rooted problems often need time and patience to resolve. Being so elusive and difficult to quantify, somatisation still remains a huge grey area in the medical world where objective results are all important. Western medicine has traditionally been based on the mind and body being seen as separate and although thinking has changed there still remains a split. People need to be made more aware of how psychological factors can cause physiological conditions and how common and legitimate it is. It is no wonder that people feel their mental pain in their bodies while society in general continues to see mental health issues as somehow less important than physical ones. At The Well Being Therapy Centre, we take your mental pain and your physical pain equally seriously, and give you as long as you need to understand the causes and find a way forward.