The term “psychosomatic illness” might make you think of a person who is a hypochondriac, or a sickness that has no physical basis. “It’s all in your head.” It’s often taken to mean “imaginary illness”, but a psychosomatic illness involves very real pain and dysfunction that are originally initiated by emotional factors.
The idea that what you think and how you feel could be contributing to your symptoms may be frightening or, to some, laughable. It may come across as new-age nonsense, but the foundations of psychosomatic healing is actually based heavily on evidence-based research. Ancient healing traditions like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda also use somatic approaches, highlighting how illnesses can reflect imbalances in emotions and thoughts.
As modern medicine progresses, researchers and experts continue to discover that almost all physical illnesses have mental factors that influence their onset, symptom picture, sensitivity to treatment, and resolution. Even when other treatments like pharmaceutical or herbal medicines are given, taking care of our emotional and mental health can improve the outcome and speed up healing. In many cases, no other interventions are needed.
The three major forces behind psychosomatic illness appear to be unresolved traumatic responses, unexpressed emotions, and gut health:
1) Unprocessed Trauma – Be Like the Tiger to Release a Build-Up of Stress Energy
Dr. Peter Levine wrote a booked called Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, based on the observation that wild prey animals are rarely traumatised, even though they experience threats on a daily basis. Instead of holding onto trauma in their bodies, they use intuitive mechanisms to regulate and discharge the high level of energy that spikes after traumatic experiences and “fight, flight or freeze” responses. These intuitive techniques allow powerful animals to return to normal after they have been in energetically-charged, life-threatening experiences – and as humans, we have these in-built mechanisms to cope with stress and trauma, too. Our intuition knows what to do to discharge built-up energy and allow our nervous systems to regain equilibrium after stressful situations. Unfortunately, much of our instinctive system is blocked by our highly developed rational part of the brain, resulting in a lifetime’s worth of accumulated stress.
With this built-up energy, the body remains in a constant state of alertness to danger, even when in situations that are fundamentally safe. This accumulation of energy, alertness, tension, and stress develops into serious physical symptoms and even full-blown illness. By understanding the underlying mechanisms behind this, it’s possible to address the physiological and psychological impacts of this accumulation, and to re-learn or re-connect to our instinctive methods of releasing tension following trauma.
Understanding The Core of Trauma – Nervous System Activation
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is a section of the autonomic nervous system – it is completely “automatic” or fairly uncontrollable compared to, say, the nervous system that moves the skeletal muscles. The sympathetic nervous system is involved in stress responses; it detects various types of input from the body and mind, and interprets this into “safety” or “danger”. If the danger alarm goes off, the SNS initiates major changes in our physiology to promote a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Epinephrine and cortisol are released from the adrenal glands, thinking slows down, digestion stops, muscles tense, and breathing becomes shallow. This is great if you’re about to run from a scary carnivorous animal, but not so great when living in the modern world where we are constantly engaged in competition, and “danger” is around every corner.
However, psychosomatic symptoms from trauma aren’t caused by any one triggering event – they are caused by the residual “survival” energy that has not been resolved or discharged. Any left-over hormone secretions or cellular energetic charge from SNS activation needs to be expelled. Each time we’re unable to return to completely relaxed state after a stressful situation, our nervous systems become more hypersensitive or unresponsive to usual stimulus. You may feel more affected by events, actions, and experiences that previously had no impact on you, and after months or years in this state, symptoms and even disease may develop in the physical body.
2) Emotional Messengers From Mind to Body
Another leader in psychosomatic healing, Hermann Müller was an Indian man who conducted his life’s work in Australia while touring the world with his messages of psychosomatic therapy. He summarised the psychosomatic connection between the mind and body by stating, “The issues are in the tissues!” – and the physiological science behind it backs up his ideas.
A psychosomatic illness is fundamentally a stress disorder whose cause is psychological in origin but its manifestations are predominantly observed in the body. Physiologically, traumatic events (or any event that a hypersensitive nervous system may interpret as “dangerous”) causes a release of cortisol. This is just one of many stress-related hormones that has been linked to dysfunction of thousands of body functions and can lead to health conditions including:
– Weight gain and obesity
– Type 2 diabetes
– Frequent infections
– Menstrual issues
– High blood pressure
– Autoimmune diseases1
Okay, so trauma and stress can cause illness – but why do some psychosomatic illnesses express themselves in specific areas in the body?
While stress is the most researched psychological risk factor for illnesses, other emotions have direct impact on our physiology, too. Neuroscientists in the 1980s were investigating the legitimacy of psychosomatic theories and discovered the (now widely-accepted) fact that many substances that carry information between synapses in the brain also travel long distances throughout the body to interact with cells in various other types of tissues.
One of these scientists, Dr. Candace Pert, is known as the “The Mother of Psychoneuroimmunology” – a branch of health science that explores the links between the emotions, brain, and immune systems – the same areas where psychosomatic illnesses spring from. Among her achievements, Dr. Pert discovered opioid receptors – areas in the brain where endorphins bind and promote good feelings; developed first class medicines for AIDS, Alzheimer’s and autism; and explained that is the brain is not the sole storer or processor of information – that this happens in the body too. She went on to identify the molecules can mediate this process: neuropeptides.
Neuropeptides are chemicals that are released by neurons in the nervous system. They are small molecules used for communication between neurons, but receptors for neuropeptides are found throughout the body in glands and the immune system, too. Since their discovery by Dr. Pert, researchers have connected neuropeptide levels to processes of inflammation, wound healing, tissue repair, and more:
– Anxiety response
– Control of blood pressure
– Sexual function
– Sleep cycle
– Pain and pain relief
– Social bonds between people
– Immune system function
– DNA expression and repair23
Here’s where it gets really interesting. Recent research has found that our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and motivations directly affect neuropeptide communication. These tiny molecules are constantly changing their configuration to reflect our emotions! Each emotion or strong thought is associated with a particular set of neuropeptides. As an emotion or thought becomes a predominant part of our daily life, the structure of our cells and tissues accommodates more of the particular neuropeptides associated with those feelings and beliefs4. This is further evidence that prolonged negative emotional and mental energy can cause areas in your body to become prone to illness – the very essence of psychosomatic illness.
3) The Gut-Brain Connection – Emotional, Immune & Gastrointestinal Health
Another branch of modern science is looking at the connection between the health of the gastrointestinal tract, the bacteria found there, emotional health, and the immune system. The combination of these four aspects is researched in a branch of medicine called neurogastroimmunology – and it’s backing up what psychosomatic therapists have known for years.
The gastrointestinal tract houses most of the body’s immune cells and influences what goes on throughout the entire immune system. It also releases neuropeptides that influence our moods, thoughts and behaviours – as well as other aspects of health, as discussed above. Likewise, emotions can cause the release of neuropeptides in the brain which travel to the gut and affect its function5.
Because of this two-way communication pathway, it makes sense that emotions can quickly and severely affect digestion. Have you ever tried eating a big meal when you’re feeling nervous? Or had to rush urgently to the toilet when you felt scared or anxious?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is prime example of a common psychosomatic illness. It is characterised by a collection of digestive complaints with no underlying physical explanation and is triggered by emotions. It can present as:
– Diarrhoea and/or constipation
– Urgency to use the bathroom
– Abdominal cramping or pain that is relieved when passing wind or faeces
– Sensation that the bowels are not fully emptied after going to the bathroom
– Mucus in the stool
IBS is incredibly common yet poorly understood by medical science, which labels it as a “functional somatic syndrome” (FSS). Other FSS include fibromyalgia, lower back pain, tension headaches, and chronic fatigue syndrome – conditions that modern medicine has little understanding of, or treatments for. These types of conditions generally occur in people who are otherwise healthy and they often overlap. For example, many people with IBS experience lower back pain, fibromyalgia and tension headaches. The only link between them that scientists have identified is that they have no physical cause and people who experience them often have a history of trauma6.
To psychosomatic therapists, there is no doubt that IBS is a psychosomatic illness caused by emotions. The research backs this up, and the only linking “cause” behind IBS cases being childhood trauma7 fits nicely with Dr Peter Levine’s understanding of the post-trauma, energetic charge that leads to chronic illness. It also appears that other emotions and mental health issues can contribute to the severity of IBS, probably initiated by neuropeptide relaese – at least half of all people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have additional symptoms of stress and mental health issues8. Not only can stress make IBS worse, but other emotional states and mental health issues can trigger symptoms too9. And likewise (as per Dr Peter Levine’s work), studies have shown that people with IBS are more likely to be emotionally hypersensitive to “normal” life situations10.
The message: A healthy gut can contribute to a healthy emotional state; and a healthy emotional state can relieve symptoms in the gut.
Relieve Your Pain By Identifying The Root Emotions
Physiologically, we don’t know much about pain – many forms are still complete mysteries to us, and we don’t know where they physically arise from or how to treat them. In a psychosomatic model, pain comes from pent-up energy from emotions of fear, anger, or distrust.
Life coach and psychosomatic therapist Steven Ozanich lived with chronic pain for nearly thirty years and was scheduled for surgery before he found mind-body work that cured his pain. He states that:
“Pain and most of our health problems, including fatigue, skin, and digestive disorders, are the result of hidden tension within the mind-body due to the demands on our lives to be good, push harder, make everyone happy, never fail—to be perfect.”11
Studies have demonstrated that people with anxiety disorders frequently have a lower pain threshold than those without, and researchers have found that our emotional state directly impacts how we react to pain12. Neuropeptides that are released in states of anxiety and depression are also found in high levels in cases of lower back pain, arthritis, migraines and nerve pain13141516
NOTE: Neuropeptides are also released during other states of emotion, too – not just stress and trauma. Keep in mind that only the extreme types of emotional and mental illness are the ones that get research funding!
According to psychosomatic therapists, identifying the root emotion behind the pain is the first step. Finding a healthy way to express it is the goal. Once the emotion is expressed, the emotional body can begin to heal, cortisol and neuropeptide levels will decrease, and the physical pain will subside.
Quick Reference for Common Psychosomatic Symptoms:
Psychosomatic therapists suggest that all symptoms and illnesses have an element of suppressed emotion or wrong belief at their core; this is backed up by current research connecting stress hormones, neuropeptides, and bacteria to a variety of health conditions.
Here is a detailed list inspired by information from leading psychosomatic therapists:
Common Symptoms & Associated Emotions and Beliefs:
– Abdominal cramps: Fear, overwhelm, and wanting life to slow down.
– Aching: Longing for love, or wanted to be held.
– Acne: Feelings of inadequacy and frustration; not wanting others to see your imperfections.
– Adrenal problems: Feeling defeated and unmotivated, anxious, and no longer caring for the self.
– Allergies: Feeling “allergic” or threatened by someone in your life.
– Asthma: Wanting acknowledgement from others or feeling stifled; feeling disempowered.
– Ankle issues: A sense of having no direction in life.
– Anxiety: Not trusting the natural flow of life; feeling inadequate.
– Appetite: Both excessive and lack of appetite can indicate fear, trying to protect the self.
– Arthritis: Feeling unloved, resentful and sensitive to criticism.
– Back problems: Feeling unsupported emotionally, financially or spiritually.
– Baldness: Feeling disconnected from spirituality or society.
– Blisters: Lack of emotional protection, poor boundaries in relationships.
– Blood pressure: High blood pressure is related to longstanding emotional problems; low blood pressure is related to apathy and defeatism.
– Bruises: Hitting little bumps in life; sometimes self-punishment.
– Canker sores: Wanting to say something nasty to someone; feeling blame.
– Car sickness: Feeling trapped.
– Colds: Overwhelmed, too much happening at once, mental confusion.
– Conjunctivitis (pink eye): Fear, anger, or frustration at what you are “looking” forward to in your future.
– Constipation: Fear of scarcity; need to hold onto what you have; clinging too tightly to belongings or identity.
– Diarrhoea: Letting go of goals; disappointment; fear of missing out.
– Earache: Anger, not wanting to hear what is being said to you.
– Fatigue: Resistance to or boredom with the present; lack of interest or love for career.
– Fever: Anger, resentment, rage.
– Gallstones: Bitterness, resentment, feelings of condemnation.
– Gout: Feeling like you need to dominate life; feeling impatient or angry.
– Gum problems: Need to back up your words and decisions with action; feeling apathetic about life.
– Hay fever: Emotional congestion, fearing a change of season will bring more pressure.
– Headaches: Self-criticism, self-punishment and fear.
– Heartburn: Extreme fear.
– Hip problems: Resisting moving forward in life or following through on major decisions OR feeling that there is nothing worth moving on to.
– Hives: Small, hidden and unacknowledged emotions or unspoken problems.
– Indigestion: Fear, dread and anxiety.
– Infections: Feeling irritated, annoyed and angry.
– Influenza: Emotions in response to negativity found in the outside world and society.
– Jaw problems: Resentment, anger and a strong desire for justice or revenge.
– Knee problems: Stubbornness, fear, and pride. Feeling “stuck” where you are but being unwilling to change.
– Laryngitis: Feeling angry at authority, and having a fear of speaking or sticking up for yourself.
– Neck pain: Feeling annoyed by others; refusing to see the other side of an issue.
– Nerve pain: Guilt and anguish.
– Nose bleeds: Feeling unrecognised and unnoticed; desire for love.
– Sinus problems: Feeling emotionally irritated, usually by a loved-one.
– Stomach problems: Fear of new experiences; dread.
– Teeth problems: Indecisiveness, anxiety about sticking to decisions.
– Throat problems: Feeling silenced or ignored; unable to speak up for your needs or draw boundaries in relationships. “Swallowed” anger.
– Urinary tract infections: Annoyed or “pissed off” at people; repressed anger and bitterness.
Other Root Causes of Psychosomatic Symptoms:
It goes even deeper. Leslie LeCron is a hypnotherapist and psychologist who identified and summarised the 7 most common emotional, mental, and subconscious processes behind psychosomatic symptoms in the body:
1) Conflict: Feeling pulled in two directions can cause an internal feeling of conflict. Having to do something but wanting to do something else causes inner turmoil that may present as a variety of symptoms.
2) Organ Language: This communication from the body is mentioned in the list of common symptoms above, but it can be even more direct. Our bodies can express our emotions by using our every day language. For example, you might say, “He’s a pain in my neck,” about someone; interacting with them or someone like them can literally give you neck pain. Urinary problems? Are you “pissed off”? Conjunctivitis? What are you refusing to “see”?
3) Problem Solving: A set of symptoms can actually help us get what we want, even if that desire is completely subconscious to us. For example, children frequently get sick when they don’t want to go to school.
4) Past Experiences: Symptoms we have experienced in the past can come back when something reminds us of the first time we experienced them, or when they were most intense. A person, situation, or emotional state that reminds you of the past may initiate physical changes in the body.
5) Attachment & Identification: Physical symptoms can mirror those of someone we are close to, particularly if they are deeply unwell or have recently died.
6) Self-Punishment: Guilt, shame and other negative feelings about ourselves can show up as physical symptoms. Sometimes these feelings are subconscious and require therapy or hypnosis to unearth them.
7) Suggestion or Imprint: During highly emotional times, messages from other people or society are more likely to imprint on your subconscious. These suggestions can be about health issues, or they could influence beliefs about yourself or the world that then cause emotional distress and generate physical symptoms.
Top 4 Methods to Treat Psychosomatic Illness
While research is identifying more physiological links between emotions, beliefs and illnesses, the medical world isn’t quite up to date. For example, your doctor is highly unlikely to test your neuropeptide levels! It’s up to you to treat your underlying emotional and mental imbalances that are causing illness. Finding a psychosomatic therapist or emotional bodyworker is a great way to get started, but you can begin (and even complete) the healing process all on your own.
Here are four key methods to treating your psychosomatic illness:
Meditation can give clarity on the core issues underlying your psychosomatic symptoms, and may also help to release post-traumatic charge from the nervous system, literally rewire the brain, and reset the types of neuropeptides created.
In 2003, a randomized, controlled study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, looked at the connection between brain health and responses in the immune system. The participants were split into two groups – one group was enrolled in an 8 week mindfulness meditation program, while the other was waitlisted and given no further instructions. The researchers took blood and performed emotion-based brain activity tests on both groups at the beginning, middle and end of the trial. After 8 weeks, both groups were given flu shots so the researchers could test the responsiveness of their immune systems.
At the end of 8 weeks, the meditators had a significant increase in left-side brain activity associated with “positive” behaviours and feelings, while the other group showed no change. Four months after the flu shot was given, the meditators showed a significantly higher immune response than the non-meditators. Most significantly, the increase in the left-brain activity mirrored the antibody response – the more responsive a participant’s brain was to the effects of meditation, the more responsive their immune system was, too17.
2) Learn Healthy Emotional Expression
According to all of the leading psychosomatic healers, getting emotions out of the body is a fundamental step in clearing up symptoms. Learning how to express old emotions as well as new ones can involve relearning everything you thought you knew about healthy communication. It often involves breaking down old habits and beliefs we picked up from well-meaning but misguided parents and teachers in our early lives. For example, seeing all emotions as valid and “good” may be difficult when you have been taught from a young age that expressing anger, disappointment, spite, sadness, or even pain is “bad” – but psychosomatic symptoms tell us very clearly that these emotions need an outlet, just like joy, excitement, happiness and peace.
Emotional expression can take form as conventional talk therapy, confiding in a good friend, or keeping a daily journal; or your feelings could come out through painting, drawing, ceramics, or music. If your emotions are coming from a relationship in your life (past or present), clearing the air with that person can quickly make way for deep healing.
These methods may not cut it for some of the harsher emotions like jealousy, bitterness, spite, extreme fear and rage. These are energy-dense emotions that carry a strong electrical charge, and can be lodged quite deeply in the body. They require a strong force to get them out of the body – think impact-oriented exercise (e.g. jogging, tennis, boxing) or martial arts.
3) Byron Katie’s The Work
The Work is a set of questions designed to shift beliefs and their associated emotions that are causing you pain. You begin by selecting a belief you hold or a thought you have regularly (e.g. “My back pain makes me angry”), then questioning whether it is completely true. It’s objectively impossible to know whether something is 100% totally true or not, so the answer is inevitably “I don’t know”. From there, the next four questions ask you to consider all the ways the thought impacts you, what life would be like without it, and whether you’d like to let go of it. Through this simple process, you can easily release beliefs and thought patterns that are causing psychosomatic symptoms18. Learn more about doing The Work here: http://thework.com/en/do-work
4) Positive Affirmations
Negative self-talk can promote feelings of sadness and help us stew in our anger, releasing stress hormones and neuropeptides that cause our symptoms to flare up. It can feel like a vicious cycle that is impossible to break, but get rid of negative self-beliefs is as easy as repeatedly thinking of their opposites. Positive affirmations based on your values can promote feelings of well-being, self-esteem, happiness, and relaxation. These are statements of fact that you know about yourself or would like to know about yourself.
e.g. “I find it easy to let go of anger.”
“I have been brave in the past, and I look forward to being brave again.”
“I am capable and equipped to deal with all types of situations.”
Studies have shown that repeating positive self-affirmations of any kind can literally rewire the brain and change your future outlook. They can help protect you against negative and harmful messages from others, and even improve your health19.
Set aside 10 – 15 minutes in your day to write out all of the negative beliefs you hold about yourself and your symptoms – be as honest and nasty as you can. Now take each statement and write its opposite. “I’m a waste of space!” becomes “I contribute value to my community”; “I’m afraid of everything” becomes “I can deal with anything life throws at me”. Repeat your new, positive list out loud or in writing every morning for a week and watch your symptoms disappear.
Psychosomatic connections to all kinds of diseases are now recognised by science and shown to be driven by cortisol, neuropeptides and gut health. This is why symptoms can often persist after we’ve tried all available medical and natural therapies – our thoughts, beliefs and emotions are powerful physical forces. The first step to clearing up stubborn symptoms is to identify the underlying emotional or subconscious influences that are affecting your body; then releasing pent-up emotions and shifting your thinking can make way for permanent, deep healing.