Psychosomatic pain is one of the most misunderstood disorders in the mental health sphere, even though it affects 4–20% of the population. When someone suffers from physical discomfort and doctors cannot find a biological cause for it, the suggestion that it may be psychosomatic pain makes them feel devalued as if their symptoms are not real.
However, the fact that the physical complaints are caused by tension or anxiety doesn’t make them any less real. Even organic conditions can be made worse and more disruptive as a result of stress and other mental health concerns.
The mind and body influence each other and must be treated holistically to achieve an integral state of wellness. That is why psychosomatic pain should also be treated with psychotherapy. A mental health professional will help you understand how your memories, thoughts, and emotional reactions, such as anxiety and stress, influence your physical state.
By doing so, you will discover the patterns that lead you to develop psychosomatic pain and design a more effective way of coping with daily challenges.
What Is Psychosomatic Pain?
Psychosomatic pain refers to a physical discomfort that is caused, prolonged, or increased by emotional or mental health factors. Therefore, these symptoms are physical, but their triggers are related to stress or anxiety.
The symptoms of the psychosomatic disorder include fatigue, insomnia, and overall weakness. Other symptoms include heartburn, irregular heartbeat, cardiovascular problems, dizziness, gastrointestinal discomfort, erectile dysfunction, chest problems, and double vision.
The first thing we think when we experience these symptoms is that we have a problem with our body, only to learn that doctors can't find out what is wrong, so they are unable to offer adequate treatment.
It can be hard to accept that our pain stems from emotional factors and behavioral patterns. But it is a matter of understanding that our brain and body are connected by neurotransmitters, chemicals, and hormones that are activated when dealing with emotionally stressful situations. This can lead to the development of psychosomatic pain.
How to Know if Your Pain Is Psychosomatic
Of course, not all of our discomforts stem from an emotional source, so several factors can help you realize if you’re suffering from psychosomatic pain symptoms. For example:
- You’ve been through a significant amount of stress, grief, anxiety, or general discontent with your life in the months preceding the onset of pain.
- You suffer from depression or an anxiety disorder, such as OCD, phobia, panic disorder, etc.
- Your pain is not linear but varies in intensity throughout the day or the week.
- Your symptoms or pain have a pattern. For example, they are worse at night and better when you wake up.
- The pain is not located in a single area.
- Symptoms worsen during stressful situations.
- Symptoms flare up in particular situations or at a specific time of the year. For example, when your family visits you, during academic evaluations, etc.
- Symptoms seem to fade away when you’re distracted or having fun.
- Doctors couldn't find a biological or structural problem.
- Your pain worsens after physical activity or after a busy day.
- You get more anxious than the average person when discussing health issues. Your physical discomforts and pain make you constantly wonder if you are ill and indulge in hypochondriac thoughts.
Since the cause of psychosomatic pain stems from our emotions and thought processes, the way to treat it is with psychotherapy. Understanding that you've got psychosomatic pain is not enough to recover, although realizing it is the first and most crucial step forward.
You must start treating the cause of your pain, and not just the physical symptoms. In this case, you have to begin addressing emotional and thought patterns since they are the root of psychosomatic pain.
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How to Stop Psychosomatic Pain With Therapy
The first step to understanding how to stop psychosomatic pain is to be aware of what’s troubling you right now. It’s important to release any negative experiences affecting your emotional well-being by reflecting on your daily patterns of thoughts and feelings.
Besides acknowledging stressors and addressing your complex feelings, a pivotal aspect to treating psychosomatic pain is changing your emotions and reactions towards the pain itself. If you react with anxiety, fear, and frustration, these emotions serve to keep the pain cycle going. As a result, your body becomes programmed to respond in a certain way following a particular stimulus, such as a stressful situation.
So how to manage psychosomatic pain?
If your pain is psychosomatic, it's important to regulate those negative emotions around it. This can be done by experiencing pain without generating these toxic emotions or worries. It is also essential to stop blaming the pain on biological causes and stop giving too much attention to your physical symptoms.
The best treatments for psychosomatic pain are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a goal-oriented type of psychotherapy treatment that aims to change the patterns of thinking and behavior that causes our physical discomforts. Every session lasts 45–60 minutes each on a weekly basis, allowing the client and the therapist to be co-investigators of the root source of their disorder.
CBT explains that how you interpret your physical pain can impact your reactions to it and overall emotional state. If you fearfully respond to pain and feel powerless, this could cause the pain to linger, creating a vicious cycle.
The collaborative style of this therapy helps the client discover ways to reframe negative thoughts that maintain their pain. It guides the client through a shift in perspective by offering counter-arguments to ideas that generate negative emotions. For example, if you’re locked into a thought pattern that says, “I should be able to perform all the activities I used to do,” you will feel discouraged when your pain forces you to rest or pace yourself.
In this case, the therapist would work with you to create an alternative thought process, such as, “my body is changing and has different limitations now. I accept it just the way it is, pace myself, and am proud of what I accomplish.”
Or you might anticipate pain with a specific activity, activating thoughts such as “I can't sit through a movie.” A CBT therapist would help you develop different phrases, such as “well, I could if…” and teach you behavioral techniques to accomplish your functional goals.
CBT can help people struggling with psychosomatic pain change their beliefs and regulate their emotions. After CBT, you'll be able to experience less pain over time by understanding where the negative thinking comes from and how to respond to pain more effectively.
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy teaches you how to deal with challenging situations and take them for what they are, which releases stress and anxiety. This therapy helps you live a full life despite your pain, as it leads you to accept your negative internal sensation by guiding you towards life in service of your values.
Every session also lasts 45–60 minutes weekly, where the therapist teaches psychological flexibility and cognitive defusion, helping you change harmful thoughts, emotions, and memories that you may be attached to. For example, you could think that you’ll always be in pain and never have a normal life. But this is not a proven fact.
Most people experiencing psychosomatic pain try to push it away as hard as possible to make their pain go away since a prescription pill won't make it better. The ACT therapist makes you realize how much effort you make denying those negative sensations. If you just let go, you'll create space to explore new experiences.
In this therapy, the therapist is not trying to decrease your pain but rather help you focus on changing your behavior. This will transform you from a sick person to someone who can enjoy life to the fullest.
With ACT, you learn to be present and not react to unwanted physical or emotional situations. The therapist focuses on your values and how your current situation might be interfering with your ability to reach your full potential.
Can Online Therapy Help?
Both of these therapies can be performed online for you to receive proper treatment remotely. The benefits of online therapy include:
- Comfort: Most people experiencing psychosomatic pain may not feel strong enough to go somewhere away from home to talk about their problems. This is why online counseling can be an excellent alternative, as you don't have to exert yourself to attend every session.
- Convenience: Online therapy can also be more convenient than in-person sessions. It allows you to attend your sessions from home or anywhere you prefer; over the phone, through video calls, or via texting. You don't have to worry about traveling to the therapist's office, saving you a lot of time and energy in the process.
In addition, online counseling is more affordable than in-person treatment, provides anonymity if you so desire, and has more options available for finding the ideal therapist for you.
Psychosomatic disorder is a mental health problem that can be difficult to diagnose, as it manifests itself in physical symptoms but has emotional causes. But just because the pain stems from stress or anxiety does not make it any less real. It simply means that it should be treated through psychotherapy.
Some of the therapies available to teach you how to stop psychosomatic pain are CBT and ACT. Both can be conducted as online therapy to provide you with the convenience and comfort to restore a sense of well-being in your life.
Our network of qualified mental health professionals can help you start online counseling and work through the negative consequences of trauma. Online therapy will validate your symptoms and allow you to change your emotional responses and outlook on your symptoms to resume enjoying your life.