pyschosomatic doesn’t mean imaginary

Just because it doesn’t “make sense,” doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Psychosomatic symptoms are caused by a complex constellation of factors, including mental, emotional or social conditions. They are as harmful or dangerous as any medically-diagnosed condition.

When I was 13 years old, I had all of the symptoms of mononucleosis. After being tested by our family doctor, I was told that my symptoms were psychosomatic, so it wasn’t “real” and there wasn’t anything to be done about it.

The truth was that I was struggling so hard with mental, social, and emotional issues that my body became sick– but it was treated as though it was imaginary.

This was the first time that I experienced the shame and the stigma of pyschosomatic illness, but it wasn’t the last. I recall the frustration in his voice as my OBGYN told me me, after my second surgery to remove endometriosis, that I “should be feeling better by now,” and “there isn’t anything else we can do.” The hot humiliation in my body hearing my supervisor say that I was out of sick time and in danger of losing my job.

Folks who are living with medically unexplained symptoms are often made to feel shame, like they’re a failure in some way for having these experiences. In my case, I felt that I was so morally weak or lazy that I couldn’t “tough out” difficult situations and I “made up” these illnesses to get out of them. The underlying message is, “but there’s nothing really wrong with you, is there?”

We’ve come a long way toward validation and understanding mental illness, but somehow psychosomatic illness seems to fall between the cracks. It seems like there must be something physically wrong, but there’s not. We want to cure the physical problem with a physical solution– but we have a hard time seeing the link to other factors. Of course, this attitude of gaslighting and disbelief compounds the problem and causes more suffering.

While we tend to think of this as a medical issue, it also shows up in the yoga classroom, at the gym with a personal trainer, and in our physical therapy treatment. Sometimes a movement will hurt when it “shouldn’t.” Or someone becomes inexplicably nauseous. Or they have intense tightness, or a feeling that their body just doesn’t want to do something. Maybe it’s a a sudden headache or need to go to the bathroom every time they start to do a particular exercise.

Each of these reactions is displaying for a valid (and important) reason, even if they don’t make any logical sense. By treating all of our clients with unconditional belief, validation and respect, we honor their lived experience and make space for real growth and healing. Encouraging curiosity and kindness goes much further toward addressing the underlying issues than pushing through a “stop” signal or invalidating the experience.

4 thoughts on “pyschosomatic doesn’t mean imaginary

  1. Thank you Laura for this important topic. It is taking a long time for us to come around to learning about that label. And, it is so entrenched in the minds of many.

  2. Laura, this is excellent. Thanks for sharing your personal perspective. I laugh, in part, as my mother told me I had mono for a couple of years before I ended up getting mono. I used to tease her that she willed it on me. Your body does get run down and sometimes, the culmination of some cathartic task, can sap the strength out of you. And, that is when your body is most defenseless. The other thought is there is an art as well as science to medicine as doctors try to figure out what is wrong. So, psychosomatic may not be the right diagnosis. Think of all the illnesses that have been identified in the past fifty years? And, the fifty years before then. Keith

    1. Keith, too funny about your mom and mono! That made me laugh too. You make some really good points here. It makes me reflect that perhaps in another century psychosomatic will no longer be a diagnosis at all as we’ll have a much clearer understanding of cause and effect or the interrelatedness of mind and body. Thank you for your comments!

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