Somatization is the greatest example of the power of the mind-body connection. When our mental health begins to impact our physical health or physical comfort, it’s a sign that it’s time to speak with a licensed therapist.
What is somatization?
Somatization describes when a person’s mental health condition or symptoms manifest into physical ailments, pain, or illness. Sometimes, this happens unconsciously and it isn’t until seeing a medical professional that someone realizes the connection between the symptoms. They may go see their doctor about pain or aches, only to find out that their physical symptoms have no physiological cause. Instead, the cause for their discomfort is a manifestation of their mental health.
People who have high levels of stress often develop physical symptoms of this stress. While stress is a subjective experience, it can manifest physically through stress hormone or other physiological responses. Somatization is the result and once spotted, can be treated by paying attention to the person’s emotional needs.
Origin of somatization
There’s no strict rule for who develops somatization and who does not – because of the nature of somatization, it can also be difficult to determine who has the condition. Only after multiple medical tests and consultations with doctors or other medical professionals, including therapists, can someone confidently say that their physical ailment is only due to their mental health. Often, medical professionals and therapists remain separated in the client’s care and have no or limited communication.
It’s generally believed that somatization is the result of the body’s increased stress reaction to a person’s emotional state. People who feel stressed, including people who have anxiety or depression, may signal to their bodies that they’re not safe. The engagement of the fight-or-flight response can release hormones or chemicals that have harmful effects on the body. When this response remains active for long periods of time, the body can become worn down.
For other individuals, the pain has no biological reason. While the pain is very real, it’s simply a result of their internal state of mind and a manifestation of emotional distress.
Symptoms of somatization
People who experience somatization may feel aches across their body, including headaches, stomachaches, joint pain, or sensitivity to touch. The gastrointestinal tract may also develop issues, including diarrhea, constipation, or discomfort. There might also be nausea, fatigue, or feeling faint. Often, people who have somatization develop rashes or other skin conditions that clear up with mental health treatment.
Some instances of somatization can be as serious as needing hospitalization. When this occurs, it’s vital to work with a trained therapist as part of regaining health.
Therapy for somatization
There are many evidence-based therapy modalities available for clients who suffer from somatization. Therapists who have additional training in treating somatization teach clients how to draw a stronger connection between the mind and the body. As they support the client’s mental health, they’ll also encourage clients to notice any progress in their physical symptoms. Therapy is a space to talk about any feelings, including any frustrations that arose from the medical diagnosis or treatment of somatization, as many clients feel like they were judged for their situation.
The goal for therapy for somatization is to reduce the client’s stress levels, address the root mental health condition, and help the client gain control over their physical symptoms through relaxation and coping techniques.