What Are Psychosomatic Symptoms And Why Are They Harmful?
By Julia Thomas
Updated May 09, 2019
Reviewer Heather Cashell
No one likes to be told their symptoms are psychosomatic. That's because, for many people, the term has come to mean imaginary. Being told your symptoms aren't making you feel brushed off and disrespected. However, a new definition of psychosomatic symptoms is emerging as scientists explore the mind-body connection. Medical doctors and mental health professionals are also changing the way they view these symptoms. What they've come to understand better is that both psychological and biological factors influence our health, and psychosomatic symptoms are just important to address as physical symptoms.
Old And New Definitions Of Psychosomatic Symptoms
As understanding of the mind and body has advanced, the words used to describe conditions that involved both physiological and psychological components also have evolved.
'Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health,' written by Cecelia Tasca et al. and published in the Clinical Practice Epidemiology Mental Health journal gives a lengthy description of a condition known as 'hysteria.' From two thousand years B.C.E. to the early 19th Century, hysteria was identified as a women's illness that might include physical symptoms with no organic origin. In other words, that the idea that they were sick was their only problem. Doctors at that time related this condition to the position of the woman's uterus. The typical treatment was to try to move the uterus into a more favorable position.
'Hysteria' was used by doctors in the early 19th Century to refer to a condition now defined in the English Oxford Living Dictionaries as:
'An old-fashioned term for a psychological disorder characterized by conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization) or a change in self-awareness (such as a fugue state or selective amnesia).'
Currently Emerging Definition Of Psychosomatic
The newest definitions for psychosomatic symptoms recognize both the physiological and mental aspects of psychosomatic conditions.
On Patient's Mental Health site, Dr. Roger Henderson defined psychosomatic disorders in this simple way:
'Psychosomatic means mind (psyche) and body (soma). A psychosomatic disorder is a disease which involves both the mind and the body.'
While that definition seems easy enough to understand, it certainly isn't very specific. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, categorizes all 'somatic' disorders into five different groups. These groups are listed below, some with their definitions.
- Somatic symptom disorder (occurs when a person feels extreme anxiety about physical symptoms such as pain or fatigue. The person has intense thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the symptoms that interfere with daily life.)
- Conversion disorder (a mental condition in which a person has blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation.'
- Psychological factors affecting a medical condition
- Factitious disorders (conditions in which a person acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not sick, creating or exaggerating symptoms by making them up or deliberately causing them.
- Other somatic disorders
So, what does all this mean? What exactly are psychosomatic symptoms? The truth is that the term psychosomatic symptoms has been so misused that it no longer has any clear meaning. Some people consider psychosomatic symptoms are fake symptoms. However, this view of all psychosomatic symptoms is outdated. Instead, the emerging definition recognizes that symptoms may be real or made up, explained or unexplained, and include both physical and mental components.
What Medical Conditions Tend To Have A Psychological Component?
Researchers, doctors, and counselors all have a lot to learn about how the body and the mind together impact our health. They probably always will. When you become ill, how much of your illness is brought on or worsened by what happens in your mind? The final answer may never be known. What we do know is that some medical conditions become worse during times of stress. These include:
- High blood pressure
- Skin disorders such as psoriasis or eczema
- Gastrointestinal disorders like stomach ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome
- Heart disease
Is It All in My Mind?
The question of whether you're suffering from psychosomatic symptoms may make all the difference in whether you ignore those symptoms or seek treatment immediately. What you need to remember about that is that when symptoms cause you serious physical and mental distress, getting help is the most logical way to approach the situation.
The mind and body are now thought of as both being a part of a single continuum. Only disorders at the ends of the spectrum are all mind or all body. Most illnesses lie somewhere in between, having both mental and physical aspects.
Also, what affects the mind can affect the body. For example, people with severe depression often stop taking care of their physical needs like eating, sleeping, and bathing and become physically ill as a result. What affects the body affects the mind, too. When you have a serious medical condition that results in physical pain, impaired functioning, and a shorter expected lifespan, you may experience depression and anxiety as a result.
Psychosomatic symptoms, then, are at least partly created or exacerbated by your mind. So, are your psychosomatic symptoms all in your mind? The answer is almost certainly, 'no.' If they cause you pain, anxiety or problems with daily functioning, you need to address them no matter which side of the mind-body spectrum they fall on.
Why Psychosomatic Symptoms Are Harmful
The traditional approach to psychosomatic symptoms was to ignore them or to convince the person suffering from them that they weren't real. Although this type of opinion is beginning to fade, many people - even doctors - don't take psychosomatic symptoms seriously.
For several reasons, it's important for doctors and counselors to pay attention when a patient talks about symptoms. Even if the professional thinks those symptoms have a psychological component, they need to learn more about them and use the right treatments to help their patient deal with those symptoms. Here are a few reasons why this is so important:
- Some medical conditions start out with vague symptoms that may seem psychosomatic.
- Not all medical conditions have been identified
- Psychiatric conditions can have physiological consequences.
- Symptoms are almost always distressing.
- Psychosomatic symptoms can cause declines in daily functioning.
- People with psychosomatic symptoms often become socially isolated.
How Much Control Do I Have Over My Psychosomatic Symptoms?
Once you recognize that you're having psychosomatic symptoms, you might wonder what you can do about them. Can you wish them away? If you doggedly tell yourself they aren't real, will they go away on their own? Probably not. Instead, a caring doctor or counselor accepts the symptoms without judging them. When you do the same, you can move on to learning how to deal with them. You probably can't control these symptoms directly, but when you change the way you think about them and how you behave when you have them, you may find that they diminish nonetheless.
How Can My Primary Care Doctor Help?
The first professional to see when you think you might be having psychosomatic symptoms is your primary care doctor, if you haven't exhausted that avenue already. You need to find out about any medical problems behind the symptoms and get treatment for them. A patient-friendly doctor will make this process easy and understandable and help keep you from ending up with too much medical intervention.
Your primary care doctor can help you in the following ways:
- Offering patient-friendly care
- Recording and evaluating your medical history
- Evaluating current symptoms
- Testing for suspected medical conditions
- Making referrals when you need to be evaluated by specialists
- Treating known medical conditions
Avoiding Unnecessary Tests And Treatments
There's one more way your primary care doctor can help you. They can make sure you don't get too heavily involved in the medical care system. Often, when a doctor doesn't know what's wrong, they take a trial-and-error approach, offering many different treatments or referrals for care with too many specialists. Since doctors are taught to find a problem and fix it, you may end up with so many diagnosed medical conditions that you can't keep track of it all. The worst part is that none or few of the treatments you are given may be necessary!
So, what can a doctor do to prevent this? They can limit the number of referrals they make, limit invasive tests, and follow up on chronic conditions regularly. Finally, the best thing they can do is explain the need to talk to a counselor, so you can feel better and become physically and mentally healthier.
What Can A Counselor Do To Help Me Feel Better?
Seeing a counselor for psychosomatic symptoms doesn't mean you think they're all in your mind. Instead, it means that you recognize the psychological component of physical illness and want to address that aspect of your symptoms as well. A counselor can help you in a variety of ways.
Coping With Symptoms
Whether you have cancer, an ulcer, or a mystery illness, you'll need to be able to deal with the symptoms. A counselor can teach you excellent coping skills you can use now and throughout your life. Because your doctor may not know what's causing your symptoms, you need to face your fear of the unknown. Coping with this fear is one of the great challenges of human life.
Coping skills can include practical behaviors like focusing your thoughts on a hobby or artistic endeavor. You can learn to channel your mental energy into writing in a journal. Or, you can cope with your symptoms by getting involved in social activities that not only keep your mind occupied but also provide you with social support.
Avoiding Crossover Effects
As mentioned before, the mind affects the body, and the body affects the mind. When a problem that's mostly physical causes mental anguish or a problem that's mostly psychological causes physical problems, that's a crossover effect. A counselor can help you understand how to avoid crossover effects that complicate problems that would otherwise be easier to treat.
Changing The Way You Think, React, And Behave
What if you could change the way you think, react, and behave so that you felt better physically and mentally? Is that even possible? It probably is.
When you constantly think about a physical problem, it can cause you to change the way you move, take care of yourself, work, and play. When you learn to address that problem differently and reduce the amount of thought you give it, those things can change back to what's normal for you.
When you have extreme reactions to small physical problems, you set the stage for more physical suffering as well as anxiety and depression. Instead, you can learn to moderate your reactions so that you stay calm and behave in ways that are more appropriate to the situation.
Counselors often use cognitive behavioral therapy to help people with psychosomatic symptoms make these important changes. CBT is a way of examining, evaluating, and changing thoughts that keep you focused on those symptoms.
When you have psychosomatic symptoms, you typically face them alone. Your family and friends probably don't understand, and unless you have a patient-friendly doctor, even your physician may seem uncaring. A therapist can guide you through this difficult time, offering their support all along the way.
If you'd like to talk to a therapist about symptoms you're having or any mental health concern, you can contact a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com. Counselors are available online, wherever and whenever you prefer. You don't have to suffer alone. In fact, if you get the right help, your suffering is sure to decrease or even go away completely!