What are they ?
A disease is said to be psychosomatic when no organic cause has been found. Of emotional origin, it is said to have been discovered in ancient Egypt, but was not really accepted as a reality until after the discovery of the unconscious at the time of Freud, the person who advanced the concept of interaction between the psychic and the organic, each affecting the other.
The body and psyche are intimately linked and in constant interaction. To confirm, for example, the consequences of psychological distress on the physical body, research in psycho-neuro-immunology has concluded that a surfeit of emotion in the nervous system results in the production of corticosteroid hormones that lower the body’s immune defences. Exposure to disease is then inevitable.
Stress is believed be the main psychic factor that triggers or promotes psychosomatic disease. This occurs during three phases: the so-called warning, struggle and then exhaustion phases. It is during the latter that cortisol secreted by the adrenal glands draws reserves of energy from the body. Infections can then easily affect the body.
The psyche is a fervent bodyguard. It acts differently depending on the type of stress encountered:
- It can thus establish a defence system capable of avoiding, if not limiting, the physical impact of stress when it is easily identified;
- But it finds it hard to put this mechanism in place when stress is unconscious, that is, when the person suffers from anxiety that is not firmly defined.
Symptoms vary depending on the individual, but also on the type of psychic disorder:
- Neuroses often attack the liver, colon and intestines, leading to gastrointestinal disorders (stomach reflux, bloating and constipation, functional colopathy or irritable bowel syndrome);
- Stress, emotionality, anxiety and frustration lead to skin diseases (hair loss, mouth ulcers, naso-labial herpes, eczema, warts, psoriasis);
- An adrenaline rush or stress hormone may be responsible for high blood pressure or migraine. It also increases the risks of a heart attack;
- In some subjects, emotional disruption can lead to dietary imbalances such as anorexia, obesity, bulimia, alcoholism;
- In children, the inability to express malaise and permanent stress encourages their bodies to externalise them in eczema, early asthma, or stunted growth. It is also not uncommon for it to lead to anorexia nervosa (in infants), insomnia / sleep disruption, or vomiting;
It should be noted that the diagnosis for these types of conditions can only lead to the conclusion of a psychosomatic disease in the absence of organic causes. Nothing differentiates a psychosomatic disease from a normal disease except the cause. The doctor’s diagnosis always begins with questioning during which they can determine whether it is a psychic cause (emotionality, burnout, anguish, anxiety) or somatic (presence of bacteria or viruses, deterioration of an organ, etc.).
What can be done to prevent it ?
Once a diagnosis of psychosomatic disease is established, managing it is two-fold with medical treatment to alleviate the crisis and psychotherapy to rebalance the psychic malfunction. A psychotherapist will begin by listening to their patient to help identify possible psychological causes of their disease. Psychotherapeutic work will then consist in releasing the bonds of buried emotions by allowing the psyche to regain the resources to regulate tensions on its own. This defence mechanism established by the psyche (resulting from the psychotherapeutic treatment) will prevent recurrence of the disease.
Some tips top for preventing psychosomatic diseases
The person needs to learn how to contain their stress and channel their anxieties so that the body can establish a defence system capable of avoiding somatisation. Physical activity is obviously the primary recommendation for combating all conditions and mitigating stress. Then there is the dietary balance and moderate consumption of alcohol, coffee and tobacco.
Sleep is also a good ally in avoiding psychosomatic disorders. Indeed, the deep sleep phase at the start of the sleep cycle alleviates physical exhaustion. As for the so-called “paradoxical” phase, it allows the unconscious to organise and balance the emotions experienced during the day.
As far as possible, it is recommended that people should engage in recreational activities outside of their work, which could be outings, reading, games of all kinds… Lastly, relaxation exercises such as stretching as well as well-being treatments (sauna, massage, etc.) avoid a surfeit of emotion.
These documents were prepared and made available by Sister Yvette Ebolo, Central Africa Section