Our prompts were: neurologist Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan’s prize winning book ‘ Its All In Your Head’ where she respectfully tells the stories of numerous patients with extreme symptoms which have originated in the mind – what she calls conversion illnesses; a lecture by Dr Howard Schubiner where he describes the development of neural pathways which lead to an over sensitivity to danger and therefore to symptoms like pain and an interview with Dr John Sarno about his book ‘The Divided Mind’, where he has written about working for 50 years with people who have mindbody back pain.
The medical practitioners we listened to are confident that 25 – 30% of all illness is psychosomatic. These illnesses have real and often debilitating symptoms but are not organic in origin – there is no tissue damage. Instead, neural pathways have evolved to unconsciously distract from emotional suffering by converting the mental pain into physical symptoms. The assumption is that the unconscious mind has found a creative way to repress the mental pain.
Certain characteristics of a person’s experience are indicators of psychosomatic illness. For example, a person will typically have been unwell for many years, often with a variety of different conditions. They are usually not helped by conventional medicine. The illnesses that come up most often are pain especially in the back and neck, fatigue, skin conditions, IBS, fibromyalgia and allergies. In terms of personality, Dr Sarno has noticed that these conditions are commoner in people with a tendency to perfectionism, a need to be good and its common for people with this kind of illness to be preoccupied with their health. Many become anxious and depressed and we are therefore likely to meet them in counselling. It should be noted that all of us have psychosomatic illness to some extent – skin problems when stressed, abdominal reactions to anxiety, headaches when over pressed etc.
Our discussion lead from wonder at the prevalence of psychosomatic illness, to conjecture about some clients’ illness as well as our own. We also talked about different family cultures and attitudes around illness – especially the shame of illness or incapacity versus illness as a way of being cared for. We touched on some experience of ME.
When it is suggested to people that their symptoms might be psychosomatic , many are angry and offended if they understand it to imply that the symptoms are imaginary. They aren’t. However, for those who can be at least partially open minded, education about the workings of the brain and an opportunity to explore the original root of emotional distress are the ways to recovery. Clearly this is in the realm of counselling and psychotherapy. We were energised to think of the therapeutic opportunities these clients present.