In my last posts, I’ve been sharing information about sneaky emotions as a way to help you shine the light on what’s really going on in your emotional life and increase your chances of feeling better.
We’ve discussed Anger as a Rowdy Ruse and Depression as the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Today, I want to talk about psychosomatic symptoms. To recap, psychosomatic symptoms are physical symptoms that arise in response to an emotional trigger. The energy of the emotion is converted, so to speak, into headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, or other physical ailments. The reason this happens is twofold.
First, our emotional and physical experiences are always tightly connected! We do not have a mind separate from our body. Our emotional wisdom literally courses throughout our nerves. We cry when we’re sad, clench when we’re angry, tense when we’re anxious, and have all felt the literal ache of a broken heart. More and more, researchers are learning about the wonders of the vagus nerve in your abdomen that is the biological explanation for the long held concept of the “gut instinct.” Embracing the fusion of emotion and body is essential, and this post is certainly not about trying to unnaturally separate them.
“Denial Ain’t Just A River In Egypt”
However, another reason emotional energy gets converted into physical symptoms is because of denial of our emotional truths. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism that when used sparingly, can effectively help us cope with difficult life experiences. Consider the person who denies the extent of a terminal illness to the point of seeking profoundly helpful treatments versus the person who denies the extent of a terminal illness to the point of ignoring her/his need for basic medical care. Some denial is helpful, and all denial is human. But when we can’t accept our emotional truths to the point of repeated psychosomatic symptoms, the level of denial can be deeply ineffective, not to mention literally painful.
If you are someone who struggles with chronic pain, such as headaches or gastrointestinal issues, and a doctor has confirmed that your pain does not have a physical cause, you may consider addressing it through an emotional route. I am not suggesting to dismiss your physical symptoms! Your pain is real and deserves your attention. I’m also not suggesting that your pain is “all in your head.” As I established earlier, there’s no such thing as a complete separation of mind and body. What I am saying is that in addition to engaging in appropriate medical care, you may also consider some deep soul-searching about other causes in the emotional realm, such as disowned anxiety, anger, or sadness.
Popping medicine, or worse, avoiding the activities of your life in some way due to chronic psychosomatic pain without also addressing the underlying emotional causes is much like slapping a Band-Aid on a festering wound: your pain will only get worse. Logically, we can see how this happens. If you’re anxious, say, by social interaction or job performance issues, and begin downing Mylanta and avoiding those situations as much as possible convincing yourself the whole time the real problem is this “bad stomach,” then your anxiety will worsen as you continue to avoid the situation, and your bad stomach will worsen as you continue to avoid your anxiety. On the other hand, if you can begin to connect the dots between your emotional and physical experiences, and then honor or heal those emotions, you will likely experience physical healing as well.
If this sounds like it could be you, take the followings steps:
- Admit to yourself that your physical problems may also be influenced by emotional distress
- Remind yourself that this is human, it’s not all in your head, and you are not weak or false for having this experience
- Confirm through a doctor that there aren’t medical issues causing your problems
- Through solitary self-reflection or with the assistance of a trusted friend or helping professional, begin looking at what emotion(s) may be stuck for you
- Allow yourself to honestly evaluate your dissatisfactions and insecurities
- Validate your emotional experience and if needed, seek validation from others as well
- Begin to look at ways to alleviate your distress, and accept help if needed: Do you need to learn specific coping skills? Face a fear? Confront an aggressor? Set better limits? Grieve a loss or old wound? Take steps toward your values and dreams?
- Give yourself time to heal, and trust in the wisdom of your mind and body to guide you in this work
Remember to be gentle with yourself as you embark on emotional discoveries and change. Harshly criticizing your experience is just as damaging as the original denial. With a curious and compassionate heart, allow your emotional truths to unfurl. With time you will blossom into all heights of healing.