There are many common examples of physical reactions to stress that everybody recognizes. They are often minor and inconsequential, such as the shake of the groom’s hand when he tries to put the ring on his bride’s finger. Every one of us has, at one time or other, responded physically to emotion, so much so that we do not give it a second thought. Think of crying and blushing – in each case, our bodies are reacting to nothing more than a feeling inside.
Sadness overwhelms you and saltwater pours from your eyes; you try to hide your embarrassment but you are betrayed when blood rushes to your face. Neither is imaginary – they are real physical changes outside your control.
These are all psychosomatic symptoms that are very normal and that we all experience from time to time. And, as long as they stay at that level, they are perfectly harmless and not unusual. But when the psychosomatic symptoms get more severe, such as chronic pain, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, even paralysis in parts of the body or full-blown seizures, they might start affecting the quality of one’s life in a negative way.
However, when a doctor tells a patient that they think their symptoms have a psychological component, the idea is often strongly resisted by the sufferer. It is as if we can believe only so much about how our body responds to emotion, but we cannot make the next step in accepting the real extent of the possibilities of the problem. If something very small can make me cry, then why can’t I see that greater and longer-lasting stresses might make my body respond in a way that is altogether more serious?
Unfortunately, we live in a world that judges very harshly those who are psychologically unwell. Sometimes we laugh at those affected or, worse, we accuse them of faking illness. And the causes of psychosomatic illnesses are not always as obvious as we think would be. They may be subtle. There may not be a single major trauma or there may be a series of small stresses that have accumulated. You are moving house, you have financial worries, your child is struggling in school – it all gets too much.
When I am under stress and I feel my heart beat in my chest, I remind myself that everybody responds physically to emotional distress at some time. None of us is immune. It is a useful reminder because people who can accept the root cause of their illnesses have the best chance of recovery. We just need to offer those who suffer psychologically the same respect as those with any other illness. Because, the sooner psychological distress is accepted and addressed, the less likely it is to develop into serious disability.