It has been estimated that roughly half of primary doctor visits in the United States are due to stress or emotionally related factors. For problems such as migraine headaches, joint pain, back pain, fatigue, and gastrointestinal problems, doctors are often not able to find a medical cause, despite many diagnostic tests. These are commonly referred to as medically unexplained symptoms (MUS).
Doctors may be at a loss with how to help since a solution may be outside of standard medical treatment. To many people this can seem hard to believe. Before you go thinking that “it is just all in the head”, think again. It is much more complex than that. MUS are real and cause physical suffering. The questions become: what creates the symptoms and how best to treat them?
If you have been struggling with nagging medical problems despite your doctor’s best intentions, you may want to have a conversation with him or her about mental health treatment.
So how is it that psychological stress can create physical symptoms? Well it has a lot to do with how we humans process emotional experience and anxiety. An emotion is a physical experience in the body that is in response to something that happens to us. Emotions such as anger, fear/anxiety, joy, love, grief, and guilt all are experienced differently in the body.
Anxiety is a special kind of emotion. Anxiety is part of our bodies threat detection system and is hard wired in all of us via the central nervous system. Anxiety is a signal to the body and to us that a threat is present. While we can experience fear in response to an actual physical threat, for example being near an aggressive dog, we can also experience anxiety due to what is going on inside of us without an immediate threat. This is often due to emotional memory that we have due to past experiences. This emotional memory can be triggered by current events and relationships.
Emotions are really designed to be felt fully and resolved. However, our emotions can become blocked or avoided for various reasons, leading to an overactive anxiety response. This is most often outside of our awareness. The body can experience persistent fight, flight, freeze anxiety responses.
While these threat responses are common to all mammals for survival, humans are unique in many ways. We are highly social beings and depend on others for survival, particularly early in life. Any threat to early relationships can create fear responses that can become repeated over time.
The release of stress hormones due to the anxiety response over time can have an impact on the body and cause physical symptoms. Research has shown that there is a strong relationship between adverse childhood experiences and medically unexplained symptoms.
There is hope! Past experiences do not need to be our destiny! We can experience our blocked or avoided emotions more fully, and when we do, we have a greater ability to overcome or significantly reduce anxiety, depression, and medically unexplained symptoms. We can also take significant steps in improving our relationships and living with more emotional freedom. While achieving this takes work and can be challenging, the reward can be great.
Intensive Emotion-Focused Psychotherapy with someone trained to deal with high anxiety and strong emotions can help us become aware of, observe, and attend to these experiences. This kind of psychotherapy can also help us notice and make piece with thoughts and memories that can trigger intense anxiety and emotions.