In the mind and in the body: Psychosomatic illnesses

Have you noticed that whenever you are stressed or upset, you might get a headache or an upset stomach? You might already be going through a very rough phase at work or in college and things are made more difficult because you fall ill repeatedly. You often get colds, body ache or fever and repeated doses of medication don’t seem to cure the problem permanently. If this is the case with you or someone you know, you might consider that your ailment is a psychosomatic one. A psychosomatic illness is one in which the physical symptoms are caused by or aggravated by psychological factors. Although the emotional or thought process is not the sole cause of the illness, it plays a significant role in the development, maintenance and resolution of the illness. This means that your thoughts or emotions, if negative or upsetting, tend to express themselves through bodily ailments.

Some common examples of psychosomatic illnesses are peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, stomach disorders, migraines, back pain and so on. One of the most common causes of psychosomatic problems is stress. The effects of stress on the body vary from one person to another.  Written below are a few interesting real cases of psychosomatic ailments.

Rajeev is an 8 yr old boy who is living in Bangalore with his uncle and aunt. One day, Rajeev developed severe stomach pain. The pain was so intense that he started sobbing and rolling around on the ground. His uncle and aunt panicked thinking that there was something seriously wrong with him and immediately rushed him to a pediatrician’s office. Strangely, when the doctor examined him and gave him some toys to play with, Rajeev appeared perfectly normal and was fully involved in playing with the toys. He showed no sign of pain and the doctor found nothing physically wrong with Rajeev. The doctor had a hunch and asked the aunt and uncle if there had been any big change in Rajeev’s life recently. The uncle and aunt responded that Rajeev had recently moved from his hometown of Tumkur, away from his parents, to go to school. The stomach pain was a physical manifestation of Rajeev’s homesickness and feelings of loneliness!

Beena is a 28 yr old married woman who experiences repeated attacks of dizziness and fatigue. Although all relevant medical tests were conducted, no evidence of any medical problem was found. Finally, Reena was referred to a psychiatrist who began to ask her questions about when the ailment first began. Reena responded that it has started about 5 yrs ago. When the psychiatrist continued to explore what else had happened around that time, Reena revealed that around that time her suspicions that he husband had had sexual relations with his ex-girlfriend before marriage were proved true. However, he had denied doing any such thing in the past. When Reena found out the truth, she said that she felt upset and angry but did not confront her husband with this information. Her attacks of dizziness started the very next day and continued for the next five years.

Vijay is a 30 yr old individual with mild mentally retardation. A few weeks ago, he started complaining to his mother that he would suddenly feel like he was running out of breath and collapse on the ground. For a few moments he would feel paralyzed.  He has had four or five such episodes in the last few weeks. His mother took him to a psychiatrist who discovered that Vijay is an avid sportsperson who wanted to compete in the Special Olympics in Beijing this year. He has previously won several medals in weightlifting and believed he could win again this year. However, his mother did not have the time to take him to training sessions because of her own ill health. As a result, Vijay was unable to go. His attacks started soon after.

All these cases, the individuals’ unexpressed feelings (anger, loneliness, frustration, hurt) took the form of bodily ailments. This doesn’t mean that the pain or discomfort they experienced was any less real. In this way, it has been found that psychosomatic ailments are often triggered by stressful situations, negative thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Anyone can experience psychosomatic problems. For individuals who already have a tendency to develop certain disorders, this sort of psychological trigger can bring the illness to the fore. For example: If Ramesh has a hereditary tendency to develop high blood pressure, some unexpected financial burden at home might trigger the illness and his BP can start increasing to unhealthy levels. Psychosomatic illnesses are becoming more and more common as people live and work in stressful environments where constant demands are being made of them.

Psychosomatic disorders require more than medicine to be resolved. One needs to find the root of the problem (which is often psychological) rather than simply treating its manifestation (the physical illness). For example, finding out what is causing stress in a person and enabling that person to handle such stressful situations will be more effective than just giving the person medicine for his/her stress-related stomach ailment.Counselling or psychotherapy can help find connections between bodily discomfort an individual is facing and its possible psychological causes.

If you or someone you love have been experiencing symptoms of psychosomatic ailments which medicine has been unable to completely control, you can explore the possibility of counselling by trained counsellors to help you. For further information or counselling, you are always welcome to contact us at TalkItOver.

Talk It Over

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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.