Psychosomatic – It’s Not All In Your Head

Perhaps “psychosomatic” was a perfectly good word when it was coined a century ago.   It does acknowledge the interaction between body and mind.  But it is most commonly used to suggest a one-way street, i.e. that physical disease is worsened or caused by psychological issues.  And often it is used disparagingly to dismiss concerns: “There’s nothing wrong with you.  It’s all in your head.”  Used like this, the term can be very unkind.  And it totally misses the intricate interconnectedness of a human being with his or her internal environment (mind/ body/ emotions) and the interactions with the external environment.

 “Worried sick….”  “Mind-numbing fatigue….”  “Weary to the bone….”   “Bursting with joy….”  “Tingling with excitement….”  “Inspired to carry on….”  These are just a few of the commonly used phrases that reflect an understanding that physiology and mental-emotional states are connected.  In Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Dr. Daniel Amen discusses how mental-emotional-physical habits, nutrients, and nutritional patterns affect health and well-being.  Blue Zones (Dan Beuttner) studies and related projects show that community, sense of purpose, connections, activity, food patterns, and rest clearly correlate with health and longevity.

On the flip side, Dr. Vincent Felitti’s observations and subsequent studies in the mid-1990’s have shown that Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) can negatively impact health and social interactions over the course of a lifetime.  Our physiology is attuned to our survival and designed to keep us safe long before we develop our verbal language and thinking capabilities.  A sense of overwhelm in response to a perceived threat to our very being (emotional, physical or other “trauma”) is processed – or not processed – in our bodies.  If poorly processed, this can show up in many ways.  The Body Keeps Score (Dr. Bessel van der Kolk) and Waking the Tiger (Peter A. Levine) offer fascinating takes on how this happens.  Acupuncture, massage, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), yoga, Somatic Experiencing, and Sensorimotor Integration psychotherapy have all been found to be effective in resolving PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  These interventions can be more effective than other ways of addressing PTSD.  In addition to infectious, metabolic, and other discrete physical causes, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia may have elements of unresolved trauma held in the body.  The original experience may not have seemed like a big deal.  It may not even be explicitly remembered.  But our bodies’ physiology may have been overwhelmed by a perceived threat and developed an automatic pattern that interferes with our health.      

So yes, it may seem to be “all in your head,” but it didn’t necessarily start out there, nor will it necessarily stay there.  Your body, physiology, experiences, and the environment in which you live, are all part of your well-being.  It may be impossible to separate all the components.  However, sorting through and evaluating these multiple factors can help.  And because everything is connected, even small changes can impact the whole – for better or worse. 

Author
Dalinda Reese, MD Dr. Dalinda Reese is an Integrative Wellness Practitioner who has training and experience in both Mainstream Medicine and Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) modalities. She graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1981 and moved to Richmond, Virginia. Following residencies and Board Certification in Internal Medicine and in Anesthesia, Dalinda practiced Anesthesia in Virginia for 20 years. In 2005 she pursued her lifelong interests in holistic health and earned a Master in Theological Studies from the University of Waterloo. She completed a Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine (University of Arizona) and obtained certification by the American Board of Integrated Holistic Medicine In 2010. In addition, she completed training programs in Spiritual Direction and Orthomolecular Nutrition. Dalinda knows that true health requires an integration of well-being in body, mind, and spirit.

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