How to avoid getting psychosomatic illness
In the late 1930s, the word ‘psychosomatic’ was added to the medical dictionary. It’s purpose was to explain illnesses in the body with psychological causes. It was useful back then, but it’s an abstraction – an ‘idea’. It’s not a concrete fact.
It’s not quite 1930 anymore, and this little word has become somewhat of a nuisance. However, it’s wedged itself so deeply into the medical architecture, that an entire journal is dedicated to it. So it’s not going anywhere soon.
The misuse of psychosomatic
Most of the time, when people say they have psychosomatic illness, it’s referred to in a very dismissive way. People tend to think of it as ‘not real’; ‘all in my head’; ‘irrational’; ‘overreacting’; ‘imaginary’. They assume that, when something is psychosomatic, it is less serious and less important than a ‘real’ or ‘somatic’ disease. In this, outdated view, you go to a doctor for real illness, and to a psychiatrist for imagined illness.
Another problem with this little word, is that it obscures the fact that doctors don’t have all the answers. Society, history (and the patriarchy?) have ascribed to doctors more power than they actually have. And this sense of power and responsibility makes it difficult to say “We’re not quite sure.” “It’s unclear” or “Medicine has not yet advanced to find a definitive, exact cause.” Instead, we put a fancy label on it, such as ‘psychosomatic’; ‘idiopathic’; ‘placebo’; and ‘unconfirmed diagnosis’. It gives the patient a sense of certainty.
We also can’t blame doctors for using these labels. It’s part of medical training, and – more often than not – a patient prefers to have a name for their symptoms, rather than living in uncertainty.
Nearly a 100 years after the invention of this word, we have better approaches to this conundrum:
The embodiment perspective
Today, we know that all experiences, emotions, thoughts and relationships have body and mind components. And, although there is value in determining a disease’s origin, the argument quickly becomes a chicken-and-egg debate.
A better way, is to pay equal attention to both.
This is where the embodiment concept is more helpful: It doesn’t ask whether something is either psychological or physical (as if you are a robot, carrying around a brain) – it acknowledges that all experiences have psychological (mind) and somatic (body) components: even those your GP cannot see on the urine dipstick.
The emotional act of crying is the embodied version of sadness, creating an altered neurological and hormonal state; the small, physical injury of a paper-cut, embodies a subtle shift in your mental sense of vulnerability; the sensation of a spider running across your arm, gets embodied in your brain, and the hyper-alert state makes every piece of lint look like a spider; the knot in your stomach from the under-cooked chicken embodies the same sensation as the emotions of irritation, anxiety and frustration and even anxiety. Feelings and symptoms are all embodied, overlapping with continual shifts and dynamic interplay.
If we stop asking ‘is it in your head or in your body’, our healing responses will become more accurate. We can start exploring the dance between all aspects within you, and find pursue healing and growth in its fullness.
How do we do this, practically?
Embodiment goes far beyond semantics. It’s a shift in your perspective, views, beliefs and relationships. Here are a few practical ideas to get you started:
- Pay attention. The first stage in any personal development and growth process, is awareness. Noticing how you may be thinking of the body and the mind as two different entities, is a great place to start.
- Change your language. Our language reflects our beliefs and worldview. If you use words and phrases like ‘psychosomatic’, or ‘it’s all in my head’, or ‘
- Reconnect mind and body. If you don’t do mindfulness meditation, start today! There are tons of apps out there that you can use, but all of them cultivate an awareness of your body, which helps you reconnect with your physicality.
- Learn from your body. In one way, our bodies can be compared to an external filing system for the brain. That means, that part of your intelligence and answers are not in your mind, but in your leg, your stomach and your skin. You can start accessing this intelligence with a simple practice:
- Sitting in a comfortable position, in a quiet room, close your eyes and take a few, deep breaths. (Similar to what you’d do with mindfulness meditation.)
- As you breathe, take notice of a particular body-part that ‘draws’ your attention first.
- Check-in with this particular body-part by asking this question: “If you had a voice, what would you tell me about myself?” If you are truly curious and interested, you’d be surprise how much intelligence reveals itself through your skin, bones, muscle and body-parts.
So, how do you avoid psychosomatic illness?
For starters, you eliminate the word from your vocabulary. By embracing an embodiment perspective, you eliminate the stigmas associated with psychology, and enable yourself to heal in an integrative, holistic way.
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