What it is and how to cope
I used to have a ton of clients who would go to see a wide variety of doctors before being recommended to me. They were experiencing a lot of physical pain, some very specific; migraines, backpain, stomach pain etc. However, after multiple scans and tests, the doctors could not find anything that was physically wrong. Considering that the pain they felt was real, there was only one explanation. They were suffering from Psychosomatic disorder. Other names include somatic symptom disorder, somatic symptoms or simply somatic pain.
We have all occasionally felt physical symptoms due to emotional reactions; butterflies in our stomach and rapid heart rate can be felt when we are overly excited or nervous. However, in some people, these feelings can be more severe and daily, causing a physical health disruption.
Psychosomatic disorder is a psychological condition that involves the occurrence of physical health symptoms, often without any medical explanation. These symptoms can take place in almost every part of the body and causes individuals to seek frequent medical attention, often resulting in frustration due to no physical diagnosis, despite their consistent pain. During these doctor visits, it’s very rare to mention life trauma or stressful events, but it is important to, especially if nothing is shown to be physically wrong after multiple tests.
I would like to note an important fact and difference. Some people get psychosomatic pain confused with psychogenic pain as they both have the occurrence of physical pain but their meaning and origin are quite different. Psychogenic pain arises from psychological disorders or stress as well but there was no initial physical issue or injury while somatic pain occurs when stress or psychological issues tend to worsen or exacerbate an existing issue.
If you feel you may be suffering from somatic pain, you are certainly not alone. While certain statistics show that 5-7 percent of the population is afflicted by it, hospital statistics describe that up to 60% of physical illnesses are worsened by stress. Absolutely anyone can suffer from somatic pain, but it is more prevalent in women.
The reasons some individuals may develop somatic pain is a chaotic or stressful lifestyle, past trauma that hasn’t been appropriately or healthily dealt with, existing mental health issues, substance use or difficulty expressing emotions (bottling up feelings). These factors can cause a wide range of physical issues, from aches and pains to high and low blood pressure. The symptoms and side effects also tend to differ by age. For example, a child who is having a difficult time at home or school and is unable to communicate how he/she feels (typical for that stage) may suffer from stomach aches or headaches. The same can happen with older individuals. However, in high- stressed situations, adults can develop depression which can manifest as a wide variety of physical symptoms.
People tend to believe that when doctors suggest that their pain may be somatic, they are being told their pain isn’t real or it’s “all in their head”. This is the furthest thing from the truth, and I’m going to give a basic example as to why. As I said, for it to be somatic, there is usually an already underlying physical issue- just typically not a severe one. I’m going to use the simple example of cortisol, the stress hormone. When we are faced with stressful situations and cortisol is released in the body through our adrenal glands, we may very well experience physical symptoms such as stomach and headaches and difficulty breathing. While cortisol sometimes aids in providing adrenaline to better deal with the situation, just as often, there is an overproduction of cortisol that can cause these stronger and more dangerous physical symptoms. So, let’s say this overproduction causes a stomach ache and you have a history of diverticulitis. You may think it’s a flair-up when the pain is simply manifesting from a stressful situation.
You can only be diagnosed with somatic pain if you see your doctor, run the necessary tests and the results show no physical issues or causes to the pain. You do not diagnose yourself with somatic pain. Some psychosomatic symptoms do overlap with serious health conditions, which is why it’s important for you to rule out those first with your doctor.
Like any other psychological disorder, there are ways of preventing and treating somatic pain. Firstly, you have to learn how to healthily deal with stress, and this is very individualistic. The basics are the same- seek help, get counselling, possibly be put on medication but there are also things you can do in your basic, daily routine. The basics first always- eat, sleep and exercise well and then, you guessed it- individualistic healthy coping skills that look different for everyone and may include music, meditation, yoga, prayer, television- whatever decreases your stress and improves your overall well-being.
The true hope is that if the initial source of stress can be identified, it can be targetted to avoid somatic pain altogether, just the same as the source of a physical injury. It’s not as easy for some but I hope it is for many of you out there as I know both the physical and emotional pain are very real. So, let’s try to get to the bottom of it.
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