What Are Psychosomatic Disorders and How Should They Be Treated?
“Psychosomatic” sometimes carries an unfortunate colloquial meaning, as it can be used to dismiss people who have legitimate conditions, diseases, and pain. The dismissive response: “it’s all in your head,” is an unfortunate holdover from when we knew less about mental health, as well as just how connected our minds are to physiological functions in the body.
We now know that psychological pressures, either originating externally or from mental health issues, can cause or exacerbate physical conditions in the body. Those practicing the field of medicine have known this for a long time – the term psychosomatic came into use in the 20th century – but we still struggle on a societal level to fully appreciate the seriousness of psychosomatic disorders.
What are Psychosomatic Disorders?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
“Psychosomatic disorder, also called Psychophysiologic Disorder, condition in which psychological stresses adversely affect physiological (somatic) functioning to the point of distress. It is a condition of dysfunction or structural damage in bodily organs through inappropriate activation of the involuntary nervous system and the glands of internal secretion. Thus, the psychosomatic symptom emerges as a physiological concomitant of an emotional state.”
Psychosomatic symptoms aren’t caused by any particular disease, and because they can be related to a variety of external influences on the mind, the physical effects they create are just as varied. One example of a psychosomatic condition is dissociative seizure, detailed in an article for Psychology Today by Suzanne O’Sullivan. These seizures are caused by extreme upset or anxiety, not a disease in the brain, though the symptoms look serious enough to be caused by such diseases. Other examples of psychosomatic symptoms can include: severe pain, hypertension, respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal disturbances, migraine and tension headaches, pelvic pain, impotence, frigidity, dermatitis, and ulcers.
What Causes Psychosomatic Disorders?
Psychosomatic disorders can have a number of causes, that vary based on the life experience, personality, and family history of patients. Psychosomatic symptoms can occur as a result of external stressors and pressure, can be the result of mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression, and can also occur as a reaction to trauma. Some physiological illnesses can also be exacerbated by psychosomatic events.
What is the Opposite of Psychosomatic?
The word “psychosomatic” is made up of two root words;
- Psyche, a word of Greek and Latin origin, meaning “mind,” and
- Soma, a word of Greek origin meaning “body” — or more specifically, the body as distinct from the mind or soul.
It describes an interaction between what we often see as two distinct areas of study in medicine; body and mind.The “opposite” of psychosomatic would be an issue that has a root cause outside of the mind, like a broken leg, cancer, or heart disease.
It’s important to realize that physical pain is much more related to the mind than we may assume. Dealing with chronic and serious pain affects the mind, and neglecting to treat emotional issues in addition to pain can hamper recovery, according to some studies on pain and psychology. The opposite of psychosomatic is not physical pain that shares no connection with the mind, because the term “psychosomatic” describes physical symptoms with a root cause in mental suffering. The cause is the distinguishing factor.
Common Examples of Psychosomatic Disorders
Psychosomatic disorders can be difficult to identify, because the symptoms often mirror physiological diseases. When it’s found that a disease isn’t present to cause the symptoms, then it might be time to evaluate the possibility of a psychosomatic root cause.
Somatic Syndrome Disorder or Somatoform Disorder
Somatic syndrome disorder or somatoform disorder is classified by extreme anxiety about physical symptoms that interferes with a patient’s ability to function in daily life. The key is that the physical symptoms are present and real, and may be caused by a chronic physical condition or another psychosomatic condition. The defining feature is that it’s the patient’s anxiety about the pain that primarily stops them from functioning normally.
Conversion disorder describes nervous system symptoms such as blindness, paralysis, or numbness of limbs that cannot be explained by examination of the body. The diseases and conditions that cause these symptoms are not present or readily identifiable. This can be caused by mental dissociative disorders, personality disorders, or extreme reactions to stress and trauma.
A person suffering from hypochondriasis experiences extreme anxiety about illness and disease that may or may not actually be present or afflicting them. This is most commonly associated with physically healthy people who have anxiety about, or obsession with, illnesses that they do not possess. It can also describe someone who does have an illness, but experiences unusual anxiety about it.
Fibromyalgia and Other Chronic Conditions
Fibromyalgia is a complicated condition, which affects the way that pain receptors in the brain function. There is no cure, and a variety of potential causes have been identified. These causes include both physical and mental trauma, which can be tied to single events or build up over many years. Many chronic conditions like fibromyalgia are related to mental illness, in that they can cause and be exacerbated by conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Treatment For Psychosomatic Disorders
Treatment for psychosomatic disorders varies a great deal from patient to patient, because the term “psychosomatic” describes an umbrella of conditions with a wide range of potential causes. Generally, treatment requires the recognition that there is a connection between the mind and body, and that physical symptoms are real — therefore, studies conclude that psychosomatic disorders require treatment by physicians other than psychiatrists for those physical symptoms.
A psychiatric approach, however, shouldn’t be discounted. Pain has a direct relationship with emotion, and treating the anxiety, stress, and bad feelings that accompany pain can improve a patient’s quality of life as well as the pain itself. While the actual treatments for physical symptoms (as well as the psychiatric approaches) will vary and should be discussed with healthcare providers, there are some quality of life treatments available both by prescription and over the counter that can potentially assist with the management of symptoms. Engaging in certain routines and healthy practices every day can also help with quality of life.
Solutions like meditation and mindfulness are controversial because they are sometimes used or suggested in a patronizing way, and can contribute to the “it’s all in your head” attitude directed toward people who suffer from psychosomatic illnesses. Treated appropriately, however, there is evidence to suggest that these meditation techniques can be effective in reducing pain and improving quality of life. This is especially true when combined with treatments from medical professionals,and used as a maintenance measure in everyday life. For some patients, the concept of mindfulness may be a path toward limiting reliance on dangerous and/or addictive prescription drugs.
Many psychosomatic disorders share relationships with anxiety and related mental conditions. Prescription medications that help manage anxiety can therefore also have positive results for treating the symptoms of psychosomatic conditions. There are some over the counter herbal remedies that are advertised as being useful for anxiety, but in general effective mood control is prescribed, and it’s best to rely on medical professionals for that.
Mindfulness isn’t right for everyone, and CBD oil is a remedy that many people have started to use for its perceived and anecdotal claims of positive effects on mental health and quality of life. CBD oil is not (nor is any other over the counter remedy) a replacement for medication prescribed by a doctor. However, people often use CBD oil because it doesn’t have psychoactive effects, compared to other cannabis-based extracts. That’s because CBD oil has negligible to zero amounts of THC in it. THC is the psychoactive compound that contributes to the “high” associated with cannabis use. However, CBD is another chemical extract, which is distinct from THC, even though it is also derived from cannabis. You should always seek advice from a medical professional before turning to a potential solution that may affect your mood, even positively. While qualitative research, tests, and studies on CBD are still ongoing, many who use CBD oil claim that it can be helpful in maintaining quality of life on a daily basis.
While results are still inconclusive across the board, CBD oil has undergone a few promising early trials dedicated to exploring the substance as a treatment for physical pain, or, for example, as a treatment for neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis in Canada. There is also evidence drawn from preclinical trials of CBD that the substance could be useful in treating anxiety disorders, which makes it a conceivably attractive option in psychosomatic disorder treatment as well., CBD could potentially assist with both somatic and psychological issues at once, treating both anxiety and the physical pain simultaneously. In regards to strictly somatic pain, CBD shows potential as well. Though research is lacking, some users claim that CBD in topical lotions, applied locally, may assist with minor aches and pains. Ultimately, more research must be concluded before the efficacy of CBD as a psychological-, psychosomatic-, and somatic-pain management solution is established. Nevertheless, CBD-derived oils and lotions have been gaining popularity in the U.S. in this regard, and, as regulations surrounding cannabis and derivative products have loosened, public and private interests in these products has grown — and likely will continue to.
Every person is different, every psychosomatic disorder is different, and every treatment will be different. Not all methods of treatment, or of health maintenance and quality of life, will work for everyone, but, with the right knowledge and effort, symptoms can be managed.