Psychosomatics: How to treat diseases “from the nerves”

IN PSYCHOLOGY UNDER “PSYCHOSOMATICS” UNDERSTAND THE influence of psychological factors on the occurrence and course of somatic, that is, bodily diseases. Psychosomatic disorders are conditions in which there is a psychological cause, the body’s reaction to experiences; the list of such disorders is constantly expanding. True, in some cases, in order to recover, you really need to stop “winding yourself up”, while in others it is worth sounding the alarm and not delaying treatment. Why this is happening, we find out from the experts: a psychotherapist, leading specialist of the Israeli center “Doctor Isaev’s Office” Dmitry Isaev, neuropsychologist, researcher of the service for the development of cognitive functions of the brain “Wikium” Nikolai Frantsuzov and candidate of medical sciences, integrative psychotherapist, director of the Institute of Integrative Psychotherapy and coaching by Olga Lukina. 

What are psychosomatic disorders

Psychosomatic disorders are symptoms or diseases that develop as part of the body’s response to stress. These can be isolated manifestations – for example, pain in the neck, head or abdomen, cramps, tics, nausea, weakness, dizziness – which are not based on the disease as such. Neuropsychologist Nikolai Frantsuzov notes that most often psychosomatic manifestations occur as a result of a person’s “unhealthy” adaptation to life circumstances, when the nervous system is unable to “swallow” the data stream. 

There are also whole psychosomatic diseases – pathologies that develop under the influence of psychogenic factors: stress, psychological trauma, internal conflicts. In this case, a violation in the work of organs arises as a response of the body to emotional experiences. A stress factor is present in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, bronchial asthma, endocrine disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disorders – although, of course, their development cannot be explained by stress alone. For example, in Russia, a surge in psychosomatic diseases occurred in the early nineties: the number of cases of ulcerative bleeding almost doubled, coronary heart disease became more common in young people, and women “caught up” with men in terms of the frequency of complaints of high blood pressure.

Why get sick due to stress

Stress is the body’s defensive response to potential danger. At the moment of stress, the production of the “emergency response” hormones of catecholamines (this is adrenaline, norepinephrine, dopamine) increases – and all processes are accelerated: heart rate and respiration increase, gastric motility and kidney function increase. The body prepares itself for saving actions – to flee from danger or respond with an attack (“fight or flight”). To provide oxygen to muscles and organs in this state, the vessels need to pump more blood than usual. To do this, it is necessary to increase the speed of blood flow, which will reduce the lumen of the vessels and increase the pressure in them. When the action is over and there is a discharge (outburst of emotions), the work of the vascular system is normalized. If discharge does not occur, vasospasm persists, and this can lead to the development of arterial hypertension.

Dmitry Isaev draws attention to the fact that animals in the wild are under constant stress, but they do not have such health problems. This is due to the fact that, unlike animals, in modern conditions a person is forced to restrain negative emotions, such as aggression. The accelerated mode of work of the body is “compensated” by changes in the organs – and as a result, diseases develop or worsen. The degree of exposure to stress and personality traits, its character, temperament are factors that also affect the risk of psychosomatic pathologies.

Psychotherapist Olga Lukina cites a case from her own practice: a patient complained of regular intense pain in the region of the heart, but he had no cardiovascular pathologies. The man is used to working hard, doing his job well, and held the position of a top manager in a large international company. His new boss is an aggressive leader who demands the impossible. As a result, the more the subordinate exhausted himself, the more often he made mistakes and listened to the boss’s discontent. Anxiety increased – and as a result, the circle closed: the exhausted body needed a full sleep, but when there was time for rest, the latter turned out to be impossible due to chest discomfort. According to the doctor, a little more – and her patient would “earn” myocardial infarction or stroke. 

At the heart of psychosomatic illnesses are internal conflicts that are not always easy to understand. A person from childhood can be taught to meet other people’s expectations instead of pursuing their own goals. As a result, inner balance is lost – it becomes difficult to express oneself, unexpressed emotions accumulate, and inner tension grows. The body needs more and more strength, and even minor stress can provoke, for example, a violation of the hormonal mechanisms of blood pressure control. This will lead to a hypertensive crisis.

According to psychotherapist Dmitry Isaev, more and more studies appear that one of the causes of many diseases, including cancer, is a special reaction of the body to stressful conditions. However, the popular expression that “all diseases are from the nerves” is not always true. In fact, human life is a set of stresses. The pathophysiologist Hans Selye, who studied the nature of stressful conditions in the second half of the twentieth century, found that stress is conditionally positive (eustress) or conditionally negative (distress). When faced with difficulties, the body reacts to them in one of two ways: actively (struggle) or passively (escape from difficulties, an attempt to endure them). Moreover, if the first reaction helps the body to adapt to the constantly changing conditions and rhythm of life, then the second often leads to the consumption of internal resources, ailments and diseases. It turns out that the decisive factor is not the stress itself, but the reaction to it.

What to do to be less nervous

Nikolai Frantsuzov advises to remember the techniques to help you relax. These include breathing and relaxation techniques, a positive internal monologue (self-hypnosis), a rational explanation of the current situation and the search for arguments in their favor (“I can solve this problem”). Competently getting out of a stressful situation using self-affirmation techniques (“I can be proud of myself”) is also important. Frantsuzov adds that autogenic training , meditation , yoga, massage and active physical activity have a good effect . Sometimes it is enough to switch attention by reading a fascinating book, cooking your favorite meal, relaxing bath or going to the theater. But, as a rule, relieving stress does not mean solving the problem. It is very important to realize the cause of your feelings and create a new strategy of behavior (this will help to work with a psychologist or psychotherapist).    

Who is predisposed
to psychosomatic illnesses

There is no direct predisposition to psychosomatic diseases, but every person develops certain behavioral stereotypes from childhood. Therefore, according to Dmitry Isaev, such diseases are not inherited, but rather according to a scenario – through unconsciously fixed ways of reactions in difficult life situations. Much also depends on the temperament of the formed personality. The doctor notes that sometimes a person whose close relatives have psychosomatic symptoms gets used to looking for health problems in themselves and, as a result, finds a whole “bunch of sores” (the patient usually calls the latter “familial”). Those at risk are also those who do not cope well with stress. 

How to heal

What to heal first: a sick soul or a body? Experts are sure that you need to work with the personality and its attitudes. Psychosomatics creates a vicious circle: illness increases the feeling of helplessness, and helplessness provokes the development or exacerbation of the disease. Therefore, it is very important to learn how to apply an active strategy for overcoming life’s difficulties. In the case of psychosomatic illness, medication is usually indispensable (and antidepressants will not solve the problem). So, in case of pain in the heart, you should first be examined by a cardiologist, and in case of skin problems, you should pay a visit to a dermatologist. If the profile doctor confirms the influence of psychosomatics in the development of the disease, he will recommend an additional examination by a psychotherapist and / or contact a psychologist.

Psychological work should proceed in two directions: firstly, it is a search for an answer to the question of what the psyche “achieves” by provoking symptoms. For example, the body may signal that it is time to rest, or reacts with stomach pain to an upcoming unpleasant meeting. Secondly, it is necessary to build a new strategy to accept the changes that will occur with the disappearance of the disease. The correction of psychosomatic states is based on psychoanalysis, and such activities take a lot of time. To speed up recovery, psychologists advise combining psychoanalysis with elements of massage and physical exercise; body-oriented psychotherapy can have a good effect. But attempts to cope with a psychosomatic disorder, which has not yet turned into a real illness, using only medical solutions, according to neuropsychologist Nikolai Frantsuzov, will not give the desired result: most likely, after passing the examination, such a patient will receive a conclusion that he is healthy, but at the same time he will remain unwell.

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