The ancient Egyptians recognized that state of mind affects how the body functions. The mind is powerful, able to influence thought, emotion, sensation and movement. It can produce real physical symptoms that affect how we think, work and play.
Most of us are familiar with the nervousness that comes with writing a test, attending a job interview or going on a date. We do not imagine the sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach and dry mouth that come along with stressful situations.
The symptoms created by our state of mind are real. Those who have had a limb removed may still feel an itch in that non-existent limb. Meditation or yoga can help to quiet the mind, relax muscles and improve energy. Our feelings and our minds can influence and change our bodies.
With any sickness, it is important to rule out a physical cause. An undetected physical condition can be made worse by psychological stress. In turn, psychological problems can cause physical symptoms. In some cases, neither health care professionals nor the patient can be sure whether physical or psychological factors are the main cause. Together, they must try to find the answer.
Some people who visit a family doctor with a physical symptom have a psychological basis for their health concern. Symptoms that can fall into this category include pain, problems with the stomach and intestines, problems with sexual function, and feelings of weakness, dizziness or fatigue.
The doctor will often order laboratory tests. When tests do not indicate a problem, this does not mean that nothing is wrong. It is not all in your head. However, both doctor and patient should look together for internal or external stressors.
The body may be sending a distress signal. Common stressors include fear of job loss, time pressure, financial problems, previous abuse, loss of loved ones, or feeling trapped by life circumstances.
Sometimes, we use denial to keep our emotions in check. We decide not to let a problem get to us. Over time, the denial wears us down. By turning off our feelings to avoid losing control, we may turn off our early warning system that tells us of trouble. The body is left with no choice but to physically tell us it is overwhelmed. Anger is an example of one strong emotion that can be difficult to manage. It can cause physical symptoms that have a psychological basis.
If we listen, our bodies tell us a great deal about ourselves. By choosing to ignore messages of distress, we can maintain our health for a while. However, long periods of ignoring body signals can result in very real physical complications, absence from work and diminished quality of life.
When we use denial for too long, we cannot address internal or external stressors. We have convinced ourselves that the stressors do not exist. The resulting mental dilemma is known as a double bind. Admitting that our health is failing because of psychological issues seems like saying we are not able to cope with life. Who wants to admit this?
Instead, we turn our emotional suffering into physical symptoms to avoid facing our troubles. The body tries to function with the physical complaints until it cannot do so any longer. At this point, a crisis develops. Something must be done right away.
For instance, someone might put up with a stress headache at the end of the day for weeks or months, until it gets so bad it causes nausea and teeth grinding at night. Then, the headaches begin earlier in the day, becoming more severe and lasting longer. Time off work is necessary to recover. Rather than addressing the interpersonal issues that are causing the health problems, the person turns to painkillers with codeine. In turn, an addiction to codeine may lead to mood changes and irritability. Due to these changes, more conflicts emerge at work and at home. You can fill in the blanks regarding this negative spiral. (Some people attempt to use sleeping pills and alcohol as stress relievers, but they neither help nor fix the problems.)
No matter our education, social status or age, we risk using denial too often to cope with life problems. Understanding this reality is the first step to solving problems. It is important to accept that chronic or short-term internal or external psychological conflicts can lead to physical symptoms of illness. Not being willing to accept this reality can prolong physical symptoms for years.
Look for unrecognized sources of stress. Is there a bothersome relationship or a history of past abuse? Are workplace issues a problem? Has acknowledging a life stress come to mean the same thing as losing a battle? Is anger and frustration a problem?
There is no shame in acknowledging a psychological aspect to physical complaints. This is the way our bodies work. The mind influences the body in both positive and negative ways.
To solve a problem we must be motivated to do so. Several barriers often stand in the way of our desire to change.
Physical symptoms are a common barrier. Sometimes they symbolize how the behaviour of others affects us, becoming a non-verbal way to communicate. This happens subconsciously. The idea that others can influence us emotionally to cause physical symptoms is not new. The expression, ‘You make me sick,’ has been around for a while and may have some truth to it.
Be prepared to use alternate behaviours and solutions. Change is not easy. We may have coped using comfortable and familiar techniques, such as denial or passive acceptance. We may have to find new ways to relate.
In the process of learned helplessness, it can be easier to give up trying to change because the outcome appears be the same. There can be truth to this. Choosing solutions that have failed in the past will probably result in failure again.
However, the mind can be shown new ways to take back control of the body. Learning new solutions to old problems is essential.
Once new solutions are developed, they should be practiced. Professional assistance can help us to reframe problems and develop alternate approaches. Active learning is required in order to make a change. For a while, new solutions seem forced and unnatural. However, in time and with practice, the brain will use the new solutions naturally.
Laboratory tests can be normal when there are physical troubles. This does not mean there is nothing wrong. Do not feel devalued. You are not imagining your symptoms. Your body may be signalling that you have unrecognized and unresolved psychological issues. Making life changes may be the solution.
Help your doctor help you by talking about the stressors in your life. Work with your health care professionals to find a solution that allows you control over your life. Addressing the mind-body connection can help you make positive change happen.