We tend to consider our emotional world as separate from our physical world. Being sad is different to having a stomach bug; emotional pain is different to physical pain. But the reality of psychosomatic disease turns that thinking on its head.
Psychosomatic disease refers to physical illness that is brought about by emotional distress. On an extremely basic level, we’re familiar with the physical effects of emotions. When we’re sad our body shows very specific symptoms: we cry. We also know that there is a purpose to crying: it shows our caregivers that we need help.
Psychosomatic symptoms or illnesses are more serious, as they lead to actual physical changes in the body. Usually, these changes cause illness. But they also serve a purpose. By experiencing emotional pain and anxiety in our bodies, we are trying to find a solution. We use somatic symptoms for this, while we deny or repress the emotional stress.
Problem solving for kids
Psychosomatic illnesses are relatively common in children, and it should be no surprise.
As adults, we can more easily face up to our emotional problems. If we are anxious about something, we can try find a solution (although even adults often find somatic solutions for emotional problems). Children, on the other hand, have not developed complex problem solving – at least not of a psychological nature.
So, instead of resolving their problems directly, their hurt and fear converts into physical reactions which get the desired result.
I can see fine now
Nolan is a 6 year old boy who is experiencing trouble seeing. He has gone for all the eye tests available and yet no cause for his loss of vision has been found. His mother mentions that she has always remarked at how good Nolan’s sight is.
His parents have brought him to me, as they were told he might be suffering from a psychosomatic disease.
I learn from his parents that they are divorced. Nolan does not get along with his step-father (with whom he lives), and loves having his real father around.
In the course of play therapy with Nolan, I learn that when he goes for these tests, both of his parents accompany him. He has unknowingly recognized that when there is something wrong his parents come together. It is his sight that is affected, as he knows that his mother sees that as his strength.
Once he has had the chance to speak about his emotional problems, he remarks, “I can see fine now.”