Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sick with a Healthy Body: Psychosomatic Illness

Today I was going to go into deeper detail concerning Borderline manipulation, but I’m having a hard time shaking thoughts of something I’ve been dealing with a lot this past weekend.

What happens when what’s “all in your mind” begins to physically manifest in your body? When you experience physical pain but nothing is apparently wrong? When you experience physical illness but your body is actually healthy?

Psychosomatic Illness

What is Somatization? Somatization is defined as the tendency to experience psychological distress in the form of physical symptoms.

Have you ever been so anxious about something that you’ve felt physically nauseous? Some physical diseases are believed to have a mental component derived from the stresses and strains of everyday living. This is often the case, for example, of lower back pain and high blood pressure, which appear to be partly related to stresses in everyday life.[5] I doubt it would surprise anyone to hear that stress can have physical effects on the body or that mental distress can exacerbate, say, ulcers. It also wouldn’t surprise me to hear that most people don’t think about it much beyond that.

From Psychology Today: “On one level, of course, the brain and the body are intimately intertwined, the brain sending out innumerable signals and instructions to the body every second, the body receiving them and sending back perhaps just as many. In Buddhism, the mind and body are considered "two but not two," a concept meant at least partially to reflect their complex interdependence. Further, evidence is beginning to mount that our physical brains and our subjective experience of them---that is, our minds---are also "two but not two" (as I discussed in a previous post, The True Cause Of Depression), so the idea that an emotional disturbance could be translated into a physical symptom shouldn't be too surprising.”

It’s very important to understand that just because there isn’t a physical origin for these symptoms, doesn’t mean that the symptoms themselves aren’t real. You can’t tell me that I’m not nauseous and close to vomiting just because it’s due to anxiety and not the flu. Either way, those physical symptoms still exist, but treating yourself with anti-biotics instead of anti-anxietals isn’t going to do you much good. Like any symptoms of illness, it’s important to discover what is actually causing the physical symptoms in order to get the proper treatment.

Something I haven’t paid much attention to in the past, were these kinds of physical symptoms. I was in a position this weekend to notice an interesting effect though. I’ve cut down on my drinking. A lot. Maybe once a week I’ll have “a couple” drinks with friends, but I’ll be a little sneaky about it, and re-fill my glass with seltzer water instead of wine. Mentally I’ve been in a better place and my desire to drink and drown my problems with booze has been next to nil. I haven’t had such an intense need to escape my own mind, and physically I’ve felt a lot better without having the toxic juice pumping through my veins. This weekend however, was psychotically stressful for me (You’ll get the full run down in this week’s Lucid Analysis). I woke up Friday morning feeling headache-y and mildly nauseous. I was extraordinarily uncomfortable with my surroundings, incredibly anxious about my physical appearance/dysmorphia, freaked out and ready to flee from a very emotional confrontation the night before, and I had no means of escape to a better environment because we’d gone out of state and I didn’t drive. As the day went on my fatigue, headache, and nausea worsened. For about 7 hours I dealt with feeling miserable and ill.

Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon I gave into the need to mentally escape and had a drink. Almost instantly I began to feel better. By the time I finished my second glass of wine my headache was gone and I no longer felt nauseous.  This coupled with the fact that I had actually just been sick a few weeks ago and on a lot of antibiotics, which logically would have knocked out any origins for physical disease and the fact that alcohol seems to have “cured”** my physical symptoms, it made me stop to consider that it was my stress and anxiety causing my sickness. This is by no means the first time it’s happened I’m sure. Because I’m now at a more self-aware and educated point in my life, this is a correlation I now recognized.
Something else I was reminded of this weekend. I have some obvious PTSD issues when it comes to letting other people drive during adverse weather conditions due to a very bad car wreck I was a passenger in years ago. My knee jerk reaction spasms aside, my anxiety shoots through the roof, I get tension headaches and if the person takes a turn “too fast” or doesn’t slow down fast enough, my stomach churns, I get nauseous, and I will physically feel the need to vomit. Clearly I’m not contracting a sudden case of the flu. It’s definitely due to anxiety, but I’ve never thought much about it having the potential to be specifically a psychosomatic issue.

This struck me as something that could have a lot of relevance to Borderline Personality Disorder. As a group we tend to live with an incredible amount of emotional distress, stress, and anxiety. I honestly and truly believe these levels of stress and anxiety are what cause(d) or at least contributed and intensified my insomnia for so many years. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear how many of us with BPD are often physically fatigued, have vague feelings of illness, headaches, ulcers, shooting pain in the stomach, intense nausea… with no physically identifiable disease after careful medical examination.

From what I’ve read these symptoms can be situational or chronic. Depending on the kind of somatoform disorder the psychosomatic symptoms can be anything from fatigue or mild nausea to incredibly severe issues resulting in paralysis of the limbs and inability to speak. The origins of somatoform disorders and symptoms are often the result of some very traumatic event where the mental pain is so intense that it physically translates to the body. Body and mind working together, but not to a result you’d want. Considering that people with Borderline Personality Disorder often (not always) have a history of abuse and trauma it seems logical to me that this could be a very real issue for many of us.

This could be especially important to consider for people that have repeatedly sought medical assistance only to be told their bodies are perfectly healthy. I’m not saying this is definitely the problem (I’m not a doctor and need to cover my butt concerning any kind of medical advice) but it could be something to consider.  Regardless, getting the mental condition under control so that our mental distress doesn’t manifest into physical distress is important and worth investing the time to work on.

The first steps aren’t that difficult either. Again, I’m not a medical professional, but I think it’s safe to say that eating a healthier diet, getting some exercise and movement into your life, taking a little time to meditate or de-stress in a hot bath, and getting adequate amounts of sleep can contribute to a better mental state, and by extension contribute to the manifestation of fewer psychosomatic symptoms. Obviously mental healing isn’t always that easy, especially in the case of intense trauma and mental disorders, but those things can contribute to and speed the process of longer term healing.  

It's taken me a few days (yes, days), but getting myself into a healthier environment, eliminating as much stress as possible and living in my usual healthy way, has made me feel physically and mentally better.  

** I don’t recommend, nor do I think alcohol is a “cure” for psychosomatic illness. In this particular example it helped me recognize what was making me feel ill in the first place. Alcohol is never a “solution”. I did recognize that putting myself in a better environment, working out, and taking a nap would have been better for me, unfortunately they weren’t viable options at the time. 


  1. I'm in the dumps right now as well and I'm thinking it's time to weed the bad from my life, old friends who suck and people who just tend to bring me down, time to look for the light at the end of my tunnel, because I've lost it lately. :)

    1. Let me tell you, getting rid of the people that bring you down and burden your life with negative energy can seem difficult, but it helps in such an enormous way. I strongly believe that one of the best things we can do for our mental health is to get rid of those influences that put us in a worse mental state. Taking care of you is important so do what you have to do!

  2. Pain is pain regardless of its origin. Trusting our whole body, mind included, is vital to becoming whole (not fractured) people. I am getting of fed up with doctors not seeing all humans as beings on a spectrum rather than selling us the illusion of Being Healthy or Suffering in Illness.

    When I moved to the US (the west in general) one of the hardest things for me to comprehend was the thought that if your body appeared "fine" then the symptoms you were feeling must all be in your mind thus making the person a malingerer or someone looking for attention. I was raised that if I felt "off" or had tummy ache or headache or something similar, and there was nothing in the body, to examine what else could be going on. Some things I was expected to "push through" but others were believed to be an imbalance of the interior; however all were valid. All animals can become uncomfortable and then ill in hostile and unwelcoming situations. It's frightening that so few doctors in the west have labelled people who react to their environment as "touchy" or "too sensitive". Worse, that concept is being embraced in the east and we're starting to see ourselves as superstitious and "low tech".

    I think being true to yourself and your feelings is a vital way to work towards becoming a whole person. Repressing and forcing yourself to do or believe something because society expects it is asking for poor health. People who usually ask us to suck it up or scoff at us for being "sensitive" often are just as sensitive or unbending on other things anyway so it's important to live a life you can respect.

    Your posts are helping me see BPD from a different angle. It gets cloudy and triggering asking my husband about these things but your posts are as if a friend were seriously thinking about how and why it is. Very insightful!

  3. Thank you for posting. My stress at work, the marriage, and just daily life finally got the best of me. I believe that years of chronic stress and the emotional roller coaster of BPD have had it's toll and my body is protesting! NO MORE!!! I haven't been able to work in six weeks now due to the anxiety and panic attacks. My symptoms include paralysis in my face (Bells Palsey), migraines, nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations, fainting, low blood pressure, insomnia, vertigo, and memory loss. I have had CT Scans, EKG's, MRI's, Ultra-Sounds, and all tests come back normal. I am convinced that the mind is very powerful and tells the body when enough is enough. I never imagined that my health would be affected as much as it has been over the past six weeks. I am no longer the person I used to be. I was once responsible, sharp, focused, on task, and the "never say no" go to person. I did it all! Multi-tasking was my middle name now I can't even remeber if I took my medications each morning. At this point I am concentrating on the word of God for peace and getting as much rest as possible to heal. I have noticed that as soon as anything stressful comes up no matter how small; my face starts to twich and my heart feels like it is coming out of my chest, I start to sweat and can no longer function. I wish I had more answers because I really need to go back to work. I can no longer afford to stay home. Again thank you for your blogg, you are amazing.

    1. That sounds so difficult to deal with! Have you talked to a doctor about anti-anxiety medication? I hope you can find a solution. Good luck!

  4. I have symptoms where I have pain all over my body. I think I'm having a brain aneurysm, or a heart attack. I get very cold & begin to shake no matter if it's 80 degrees & I have a hoodie on. I get nausea & dizzy & it seems to be worse in the morning or at night. I have been on xanax for 2 years now & that helps control it. It also seems to come when I don't eat. What I do not understand is that I'm a very smart person (144 IQ) & work in the medical field. I've been able to overcome every obstacle in my life except this. I quit drinking after 10 years cold turkey. Quit smoking after 14 years cold turkey. I've tried every drug in the book & none of them make me addicted. I've had OCD twitches like sniffling for 16 years & counting numbers & left/right head movements, etc that I've broken myself of. I've developed excellent emotional & physical controls & even brought my body up to high conditioning by being in the gym for 40 hours a week by age 26.

    Now at age 32 after all the bad habits are gone & I have the best job of my life. I'm finally happy being single. I've had a couple of surgeries making it so I can't workout anymore & I'm no longer active & in good shape (which I think is part of the problem but can't be ALL of it), I have lost control of myself somehow. I don't udnerstand the link between food & my "attacks." My blood sugar & thyroid levels are fine. I've had blood work done & colonoscopys done, & x-rays, EKG's, EEGs, & you name it. They all say it's "in my head" but I'm telling you guys I'm not stressed out. I've had no car accidents, no war, no abuse, no events that keep me awake at night. They say PTSD, but I'm the guy who gives advice to everyone through their grief & pain & I handle mine with grace. All the tricks - I know them. Yet... the evidence is clear... I'm losing my mind.

    I am a nutritionist, doing Yoga, meditation, taking my vitamins, anti-inflammatories like tumeric, PABA, GABA, GLA, to stop w/ the firing of my synopsis across my axioms too fast & prevent my symptoms from becoming too strong & allow the brain to heal & self correct & using all the combinations of eastern & western medicine & my life's knowledge of every subject to stop this & I'm losing. I truly believe that it must be that alpha personality I have mixed w/ my genius that's a deadly combination for this. I cannot fail at anything so my constant need to overanalyze & treat/cure is keeping the condition around rather than just letting it go & understanding I have nothing wrong with me at all & embrace it.

    I suggest to anyone dealing with this is to surely attempt any of the above methods given but to also match them to your personality type - as this is a personality problem. If you can "trick" your mind into thinking about something else or allow yourself to have a placebo effect by substituting new habits when your episodes come on then by all means to it. Start small & work your way up. For those deep into it like I am, the only way out is the hardest way possible I believe. Stopping all the treatments & forcing yourself to realize you are normal until you adapt to it. Because it's the fear holding you back & giving you the problems. Once you face it. You will be fine. Thats the part I'm working towards. Good luck all.


Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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