PSYCHOSOMATIC ILLNESS---WHAT IS IT?
By Sandy Plone, Ph.D.
When we hear the term “psychosomatic illness” as a possible explanation for physical ailments which do not respond well to medical treatment, we often feel defensive or guilty, as if we may have somehow caused our own illness, or worse-that’s it’s “all in our head”! My own understanding of “psychosomatic illness” is consistent with some of the definitions offered by dictionaries: “relating to, or caused by the interaction of mental and bodily phenomena”; “psychological factors affecting physical conditions”; and “Psyche-meaning mind or soul (from the Greek)”.
Why, the reader may wonder, is a psychologist like me sufficiently interested in this subject to communicate about it here and now? My compelling interest arises from several sources. In my practice of psychotherapy many clients have sought my services precisely because of these issues; by including various alternative healing modalities as well as traditional medical practices in concert with our psychotherapy work they have enjoyed positive and exciting results, often successfully healing physical as well as emotional problems.
Lives have been dramatically transformed by recent worldwide events-the devastating attacks of September 11, the current Middle East crisis and the resultant lack of safety felt by many of us-all leading to higher stress levels, which often lead to medical problems. It seems to be an ideal time to revisit the idea of how our minds may adversely affect our bodies and to open our thinking to the concepts outlined above. On a larger scale, studies have shown that medical costs are greatly reduced when possible emotional components to physical illness are explored (see News and Events- October 2000 article). In these times of rapidly rising health care costs, it seems wise to find the most cost-effective and humane way to help people heal-thus my interest in holistic health (and psychosomatic illness).
When we look at history, philosophers of long ago as well as ancient medical science suggested that minds and bodies indeed are connected. Currently, research within modern science is pointing in the same direction, as many healers try to understand connections between mind and body, and how these connections might actually contribute to healing. Many medical professionals inform us that when they practice the “new medicine” their patients tend to heal more rapidly. Often referred to as “Integrative Medicine”, this marriage between traditional Western medicine and traditional Chinese Medicine may include alternative healing modalities such as meditation, hypnotherapy, bio-feedback, bodywork, acupuncture, massage, herbal or homeopathic remedies as well. Many alternative healing modalities address the emotional or mental components that may accompany physical ailments. For example, ailments such as hypertension, chronic back pain, ulcers, intestinal disorders, skin disorders and even cancer have been known to respond to Integrative Medical practices, although the documentation has been largely anecdotal. For example, Dr. John Sarno has written extensively about healing back pain or bodily pain without drugs or surgery, through understanding the mind-body connection and how emotions stimulate the brain to produce physical symptoms. (See Book Reviews - Mind/Body). And in his landmark book and television series Healing and the Mind, Bill Moyers sought to answer similar questions of how thoughts and feelings might influence health and how healing is related to the mind. Instead of the question “what is psychosomatic illness?” as we have been exploring, his journey led him to ask the central question of “What is Health?” My personal hope is that the reader will explore for him or herself some of these ideas, on the path towards optimal health honoring the total person.
©copyright by Sandy Plone, Ph.D. 2002
Dr. Plone is a psychotherapist in practice in West Los Angeles. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.
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