Emotional Rescue From Physical Symptoms

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I was surprised and elated when I read an article titled Emotional Rescue in this year's Spring edition of Living Healthy in Atlantic Canada.  The article identified that physical symptoms can be rooted in emotional stress.  Although the article was primarily focused on this issue from the perspective of the cost of treating patients who have medically unexplained physical symptoms when they arrive at the emergency department of the QEII in Halifax, the idea that the mind influences the body to create or aggravate physical illness is not a new one.  I was surprised to read this article because it is not a subject that is often talked about and I was elated because it's about time that we address this issue.

Some say that as many as 90% of doctor's visits are due to issues that are influenced to a smaller or larger degree by unmanaged stress.  Physicians are not trained in recognizing or dealing with the impact that stressors have on the physical body.  They treat the presenting symptoms as though they were primarily physical when in fact the cause may be much more related to emotional distress.  Symptoms like lower back pain, high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome are known to have a high component of psychological factors in the development, expression, and resolution of these conditions.  Doctors Allan Abbass and Sam Campbell at the QEII state that 75% of chest pain complaints and roughly 88% of abdominal pain cases have causes that cannot be determined by the emergency physicians.  They have observed that after having intensive, short-term psychotherapy patients typically do not need medication.  They have found that while taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication, which have a sedative effect, patients have a harder time accessing their emotions.  The QEII doctors explain that emotions are physical events and if a person is not able or willing to experience an emotion because of its intensity or because it is associated with a frightening event, be it past, present, or future, their body responds with physical symptoms. 

Physicians' expertise is medical.  They are not trained to approach illnesses from a psychological perspective.  While it is necessary to identify if an illness has a physical basis, it is recognized more and more that the effort to identify disorders as purely physical is obsolete.  The mind and the body are inextricably connected.  Therefore, it makes sense that physical illnesses have mental and emotional factors and therefore mental and emotional treatment efforts such as talking therapy have a role in a more comprehensive approach to resolving the physical symptoms.  It is much easier to see the connection between stressor and physical illness when the stressor is acute like the loss of a spouse.  However, low-intensity, long-term, unmanaged stress from being in an unhealthy relationship or going to a job in which you experience low satisfaction for years has as much negative impact on the body making it more difficult to make the connection between the stressor and the physical symptoms.

Stanley Levenstein of the International Child & Youth Care Network identifies that common examples of psychosomatic illnesses in children are bronchial asthma, skin conditions, diabetes, and ulcers.  He goes on to say that organs such as the skin, lungs, stomach, and intestines, which are not under voluntary control, are especially sensitive to changes in the individual's emotional state.  He points out that unlike adults, children have not yet developed adaptive ways of coping with the stresses in their lives nor have they acquired the verbal skills to express their emotional distress and this makes children particularly susceptible to physical illnesses as a result of unmitigated stress.

Although physical symptoms may be emotionally induced, this does not make the physical symptoms any less real.  The pain or illness is real yet addressing only the physical symptoms is not enough to resolve the complexity of the mind-body connection.  

Submitted by Anne Marie Hartford; B.A.,M.Ed., executive director.  For information please email info@familyenrichment.ca or call (506) 458-8211 or (506) 1-888-829-6777

 


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