“Listen to your gut”, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”
These are everyday sayings which actually refer to the concept "psychosomatic symptoms". So what exactly are they?
The word ‘psychosomatic’ combines two ancient Greek phrases. ‘Psyche’, the Greek for soul, is commonly seen in words like psychologist, psychiatrists, psychedelics, etc., and is a reference to the concept of the mind. ‘Soma’ is the Greek term for our body; that is, our limbs, organs, bones, head, face, genitals, and anything else we consider as part of our physical anatomy.
Psychosomatics, then, is a term describing the influence of mental or emotional states on bodily symptoms and sensations.
As an example, think back to an event which got you feeling very nervous or anxious – maybe your high-school exams, or a first date with your long-time crush. Psychosomatics are at play when this nervousness or anxiety gives rise to notable changes in your bodily state. What physical changes did you notice within you at that time? Maybe shaky hands? Butterflies in your tummy? Dry mouth? A frequent urge to use the bathroom? These are all common psychosomatic symptoms caused by the mental and emotional unrest associated with these two nerve-wracking events, but why do they happen?
Mind and Body as One – Why We Are Built Like This
The connection between our mind and body was developed in an evolutionary context and was a useful adaption for our prehistoric ancestors. Often under threat from stressors such as fatal predators (triggering perhaps an anxious emotional state) or bandits of our food and territory (triggering maybe an angry emotional state), we developed the fight or flight response to help us react and do away with the stressor. Fight or flight worked by funnelling the body’s available energy away from less urgently-needed systems (e.g. the immune system, the reproductive system, digestive system) and more towards those most vital in thwarting the stressor - our cardiovascular system, our musculoskeletal system (our muscles, motor neurons, and joints) and the areas of the brain needed for planning and escape.
With the most important bodily systems receiving a greater energy flow, our ancestors could for those few moments perform stressor-relevant tasks more effectively - we could run more rapidly, fight more ferociously and think more efficiently – ultimately increasing our chances of successfully fleeing or fighting the threat at hand.
Today, we modern humans are not typically preyed on anymore, nor do we fatally duel one another in daily battles for food sources. But such was the usefulness of this early stress response, evolution has decided to keep it part of our biological makeup, and its presence can become apparent in the form of psychosomatic symptoms stemming from the mental or emotional unrest that we endure.
The examples we mentioned above - the first date and the high school exam –are modern cases of the fight or flight response at work. And just as originally intended, they bring about short-term psychosomatic symptoms which subside once the event and mental changes associated with it have passed.
The shaky hand: a sign of the over-engaged musculoskeletal system allowing us to write extra quickly.
The dry mouth and butterflies: side-effects of the digestive system donating its energy to the more urgent mission at hand.
The upturn in bathroom usage: the ridding of waste to make us more physically nimble, just in case.
The mental unrest – whether it is the modern example of high-school exams or the prehistoric example of running from a predator - is short-lived and so are the bodily symptoms brought with it. But what happens when the mental unrest persists beyond just a few minutes or hours (think weeks, months and even years!)? This unfortunately is the reality for those suffering from chronic stress, anxiety or depression, and can give rise to chronic psychosomatic symptoms which last indefinitely and be a real nuisance in our lives.
The fight or flight response is a stress response designed as a sort of ‘break glass in case of emergency’ kind of tool. Nowadays, however, the mental unrest which triggers it can be perpetual. Rates of chronic stress are growing more than ever before, thanks in part to our excessive career demands, financial burdens, familial expectations, high academic standards, and so on. The modern world can be abundant with stressors which trigger our prehistoric responses. In the cases of chronic stress, extended periods of anxiety or depression, or just long-lasting negative emotions, the fight or flight response is perpetually running – not its original intention. Our unrelenting exposure to daily hassles means stress hormones are constantly flowing, telling our body to guide energy away from the evolutionarily ‘less urgent’ systems and more toward the bodily systems historically needed for combating stressors.
When this lasts for extended periods funny things happen to our body. The musculoskeletal system gets burnt out from overuse and we might develop chronic psychosomatic symptoms such back pain, migraines or joint pain. The cardiovascular system may get worn down from being so overly active and we might suffer unfounded chest pains or shortness of breath. The shutting down of our immune system results in a susceptibility to flues, colds and other illnesses. Our under-engaged reproductive means we might suffer menstrual changes, or pains in our genitalia.
If you go to a doctor with these symptoms, they might not find any physical cause; such is the psychological nature of the source.
The uncertainty and doubt of not knowing what’s going on, combined with the persistence of the ailment, can result in even more mental unrest; a vicious cycle that can lead to aggravation of the symptoms. For this reason it is very important to be aware that many of our physical ailments may be indicative of some underlying mental disturbances and assess whether this might be a possibility for our own case. Then we can work on putting ourselves in a better place mentally, with the ultimate goal of having a healthier mind and body.
If you notice that greater stress at work is coinciding with your migraines, then maybe it’s best to say ‘no’ to those extra overtime hours. Or if you find your pesky back pain crops up during the busy exam period, take some time to get some fresh air and exercise – after all, we know there’s no physical cause to our symptoms so there’s no danger of aggravating an injury!
t’s true it might be difficult to get over the pain barrier at first, but it really is important to get out, stay active and keep our physical conditioning up. Just as mental disturbances can cause bodily disturbances, bodily satisfaction and strength will facilitate mental satisfaction and strength. We really need to figure out what is getting us down or what is stirring our negative emotions. Then we need to think about what we can do to feel better mentally and put this into action.
Written by Robert Carr, M.Sc.
Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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