In today’s world, many individuals fall ill for various reasons. Diseases are considered to not only have biological causes but psychological causes as well. Today, all over the world, people are recognizing the role of thoughts and emotions in illness and acknowledging the concept of psychosomatic illness.
What are psychosomatic disorders?
Psychosomatic disorders occur when physical symptoms or disorders manifest but they have emotional and mental causes. They are also called somatoform or psychophysiological disorders. The person does not fall ill due to bacterial or viral infections alone or due to exposure to certain climatic conditions. For example, a person complains of chest pain but does not seem to show any of the physiological causes of chest pain. Here the mental state of the individual is the cause of the appearance or aggravation of physical symptoms.
The individual complains of physical symptoms and suffers from distress and dysfunction caused by these symptoms. Stress, anxiety, depression and negative emotions are the reason why these symptoms appear or why an existing physical condition becomes worse. In a nutshell, when physical disorders are caused by psychological factors, they are called psychosomatic disorders.
Link between mind and body
The word ‘psyche’ means mind and ‘soma’ means body. The word ‘somatic’ means physical symptoms that arise from the body. Therefore, the literal meaning of psychosomatic disorders is physical symptoms caused by mental factors.
Physicians and psychologists agree on the link between the mind and the body. The thoughts, moods, and emotions of a person play a role in the expression of physical health and symptoms and also directly influence the physiology of the person.
In many cases, it is usually the unexpressed feelings of the person such as anger, resentment, hatred, bitterness or grief that expresses themselves through physical symptoms.
For example, a woman who may be extremely stressed about financial issues may suddenly find herself with a severe rash on her body. This skin condition is psychosomatic in nature because it has been triggered by her stress levels.
Symptoms of psychosomatic disorders
Some common symptoms seen are:
- Faster heartbeat
- Dry mouth
- Fast breathing
- Stomach knots
- Excess fatigue
Cause of psychosomatic disorders
The stress response varies in individuals. Stress and anxiety are complex reactions and include thoughts, feelings, actions, and physiology. There is a direct link between how the physiology of the body changes in response to stress, thereby causing physical symptoms.
Psychosomatic disorders may have a genetic component but this link needs to be explored further. Whether a history of psychosomatic illnesses run in families is due to actual heredity or exposure to the coping mechanisms of the family members needs more research.
When an individual feels acutely stressed or anxious, the body immediately gets into the emergency response state. Adrenaline (epinephrine) is secreted which causes the respiratory and circulatory systems to accelerate their functions which is why the individual may experience increased heart rate and rapid breathing. Corticosteroids are secreted in excess and can cause fatigue and lethargy and they can experience psychophysiological symptoms.
Stress and the immune system
Stress hampers the functioning of the immune system. Therefore, those with existing physical conditions might just find that their symptoms get worse. They may also fall ill more often. For example, if someone already suffers from high blood pressure, stress can cause an increase in the level of blood pressure further.
Common Psychosomatic Disorders
There is a broad range of physical disorders caused by mental factors. These include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart problems
- Neck, shoulder and back pain
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Types of Psychosomatic Disorders
As bodily symptoms manifest in different ways, there are different types of psychosomatic disorders. They are:
The individual reports severe pain in one or more areas of the body. However, there are no identifiable causes for this pain such as an injury or a wound. This can cause the individual to take unnecessary painkillers and it can also affect their social interactions.
In this condition, the individual experiences physical symptoms which seem to appear without any underlying organic cause. Many of these symptoms tend to affect some sensory or motor function. For example, a boy’s guilty feelings about masturbation may cause him to develop temporary paralysis of the hand. But when the boy is examined by a doctor, there will be no neurological evidence for his paralysis, yet he will complain about the loss of motion.
This condition is characterized by multiple complaints of physical symptoms over a long duration, before the age of 30. The complaints include chest pain, headaches, breathing problems, urinary problems, gastrointestinal problems and so on. Women can also complain about menstrual problems like excessive bleeding or intense pain from abdominal cramps.
Here, the individual believes that they have a chronic disease like cancer or tuberculosis despite receiving medical evidence to the contrary. The lives of these individuals revolve around these symptoms and they are constantly engaging with doctors, different medical systems, diagnostic and pathological scans and medical literature.
Treatment of Psychosomatic Disorders
As this does not have any biological cause, psychotherapy is the best way to deal with the irrational thoughts and beliefs that the individual has. The treatments are aimed at helping the individual accept reality and ease the stress, tension or depression. Some common forms of psychotherapy to treat this are:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This therapy aims at making the individual change their irrational beliefs and distorted thoughts and also helps them set realistic goals in overcoming their anxiety. As the emotional causes get treated, the physical symptoms also get relieved.
The gentle exercises and meditations done in yoga can offer stress relief and help the individual cope with their anxiety. Yoga calms down the nervous system and helps calm the mind. The Asanas and breathing exercises, if done regularly, can relieve the psychosomatic symptoms.
Medical intervention is usually not effective in the treatment of psychosomatic disorders as the drugs only relieve symptoms. Anti-anxiety and antidepressants may be prescribed for severe symptoms but they also come with a risk of inducing dependency.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do individuals with psychosomatic symptoms actually experience the symptoms?
Yes, they do experience the symptoms and are not faking them. They do experience the distress and effects of the symptoms as well.
Why are psychosomatic symptoms seen as coping mechanisms?
Many individuals are not used to expressing their negative emotions appropriately. Therefore, they internalize these emotions and they manifest themselves in the form of physical symptoms. For example, a man who does not express his emotions suddenly finds himself suffering from migraines.
What gender gets affected by psychosomatic disorders more?
Women show more symptoms of psychosomatic illnesses as compared to men. This could be due to many hormonal or socio-cultural factors which make them more vulnerable to developing a disorder.
Individuals with psychosomatic disorders suffer from physical symptoms which are due to psychological causes. The best way to treat this is with different forms of psychotherapy.