Psychosomatic: Behind the illness


Psychosomatic disorders are conditions in which a person suffers from significant physical symptoms as a result of psychological distress. They can cause real physical health issues and even disability – often out of proportion to that which can be explained by medical tests or physical examinations.


Since the Greek word “soma” means “body”, psychosomatic suggests a link between mind and body. Since one’s mental state may have an important effect on one’s physical state, research on new medicines always involves giving some patients in the experiment a placebo (fake medicine). In many cases, those who receive the sugar pills will seem to improve.


Psychosomatic illnesses are a worldwide phenomenon. In 1997 the World Health Organization carried out a collaborative study to look at the frequency of psychosomatic symptoms in the primary care setting in 15 cities across the world. The conclusion was that as many as 20% of those seeing their doctors had at least six medically unexplained symptoms, a sufficient number to significantly impair their quality of life.


Some physical diseases are thought to be particularly prone to being made worse by mental factors, such as stress and anxiety. These include psoriasis, eczema, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and heart disease.


It is thought that the actual physical part of the illness i.e. the extent of a rash, the level of the blood pressure, etc. can be affected by mental factors. This is difficult to prove, however, many people with these and other physical diseases say that their current mental state can affect how bad their physical disease is at any given time.

There is a mental aspect to every physical disease. How we react to diseases, and how we cope with them, vary greatly from person to person.


Medically unexplained diseases are widely prevalent and are often attributed to psychological causes. Put simply, symptoms that seemingly cannot be explained are ultimately “all in a patient’s head.”


The eight most common physical complaints: fatigue, backache, headache, dizziness, chest pain, dyspnea, abdominal pain, and anxiety, account for more than 80 million visits to physicians annually in the United States. Shockingly, only 25% of these symptoms have a demonstrable organic (of the body) cause.


If the mind has the power to cause illness, wouldn’t the mind also have the power to reverse it? One of the popular implications of Freudian notions of the mind-body connection is that positive thinking both protects against disease and cures those patients who are already ill.


There are some techniques and methods which can help to manage psychosomatic conditions:

1. Mindfulness training: Mindfulness training is about learning how to refocus attention to the present moment and away from what may have happened yesterday, last week, last year, or in the days or weeks to come. Essentially, mindfulness training helps us “get out of our own head.”

When we focus our attention on the present moment, we spend less time focusing on what ails us and learn to accept distress more easily.


2. Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Cognitive Behavior Therapy is based on the idea that a person’s own unrealistic thoughts and beliefs lead to their negative mood and unhealthy behaviour. It relies on the theory that other people, situations, and events are not responsible for a person’s mood or behavior; instead, it is that person’s reaction that creates the negative impact.


3. Psychodynamic psychotherapy: Psychodynamic psychotherapy is a method of verbal communication that is used to help a people find relief from emotional pain. It attributes emotional problems to the patient’s subconscious motives and conflicts. It is for this reason that psychodynamic psychotherapy can be such an effective treatment.


4. Yoga: Yoga is the easiest and most accessible method of managing psychosomatic disorders. A review of the clinical evidence available indicates that yoga practice has proven to be effective with a wide range of psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders

Society has not fully woken up to the idea that “it is all in your head” and, unconsciously, a huge number of people think of themselves as ill.

I personally like the idea that we can think ourselves better. That, when we are unwell, we can tell ourselves that if we adopt a positive mental attitude, we will have a better chance of recovery.