Psychosomatic? No, my Stomach Really Hurts!

When your body speaks, you should listen

Posted Jan 30, 2017

CHAjAMP/Shutterstock
Source: CHAjAMP/Shutterstock

By Chris Heath, M.D.

I’m a psychoanalyst, and today’s post is brought to you by this stomachache I have! My wife says I’m being psychosomatic. Maybe. But what does that even mean? Why would I want to make my stomach hurt? And could I, if I wanted to?

It’s more complicated than me making it up: it is my body speaking to me. And when my body takes the trouble to speak, it’s best to listen. Ok, so what is stressing me out? Oh wait; nature’s calling. I have to go.

So if body and mind are really one, why would my body feel so separate from my mind? It’s like there is a bridge missing. What’s missing? Well, for one thing, I forget my sense that everything is going to be ok. Really, ultimately, it will all work out in some way or another. Sure, I can tell myself that, but my stomach still hurts.

It’s like I am looking for a parent to tell me that everything will be alright. And sure enough, I do remember a time I could simply rely on my parent to do that for me. But now I have to be a parent to myself. I have to remind myself even if I really make a mess, like if I really mess up this blog post, it will all work out!

But it is also about my Parietal Cells in my stomach producing too much acid. And that’s the tricky thing; it really is in my body. Maybe I have an illness, like acid reflux. It’s going to flare up anyway, but maybe it gets worse when I’m stressed. Or maybe when I’m stressed, I eat junk food (and too much of it), and THAT makes my stomach upset. So it’s not “all in my head”, but my body IS telling me something about how I feel. Sure, optimally it would be to feel the feeling, but at least I can know, when my body tells me something, I should listen.

Your body can also give you positive messages. For example, sometimes just taking a placebo, like a sugar pill, will relieve symptoms, simply because you have faith in your doctor. Nothing to be embarrassed about, but rather something to be curious about. Maybe I’m looking to my doctor to be like a parent who can tell me everything will be ok. I do indeed think highly of my doctor…

There are other positive mental messages you can hear through your body. What about the butterflies you get in your stomach when you’re in love? Love moves us in deep, primal ways. In this primal way, you’ve known of love your whole life. Your physical reactions speak to how deeply that runs.

So listen to your body; what else do you notice besides the stomachache? Think about the timing; this is often an important key. Oh, it started when your best friend started going out with your ex-girlfriend? And you thought you didn’t have feelings about that? Think again. Or do you notice yourself breathing a little faster when you think about changing jobs, or moving? Is it fear? Excitement?

So when your body speaks, pay attention. It has wisdom beyond what you can fathom. It is surely speaking in a different language, but it can be translated.

Here are some signs that your symptoms might be psychosomatic:

  1. Degree of worry. Psychosomatic ailments often lead to more (or less!) worry than you would expect for a given symptom.
  2. Timing. Psychosomatic symptoms are more likely to occur in the context of heightened stress. Don’t forget about anniversaries of stressful events.
  3. Patterns. When we have bodily manifestations of stress, they often have a familiar pattern, like backache, headache, or a knot in the stomach. Also, when we are stressed, certain medical problems we already have can get worse.

Psychosomatic symptoms are both physical and psychological. Physical ailments have meaning to a person, so respect your emotional response to being physically ill.

To learn more about listening to your body, please watch my video on YouTube.

Dr. Chris Heath is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He is a member of the Committee on Public Information of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He creates videos about how your mind works. His YouTube channel is Freudalicious Mind.