THE gut-wrenching nausea that hits when you receive bad news, the palpitations and sweaty palms you get when you’re nervous. We’ve probably all experienced these physical reactions to psychological triggers at some point.
But accepting that our minds can be the cause of more severe physical symptoms is a different matter.
As Irish consultant neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan demonstrates in her book, It’s All In Your Head, which has just scooped the Wellcome Book Prize 2016, psychosomatic illness — which basically means physical symptoms where there’s no obvious medical cause, and so it’s believed that psychological or emotional factors are to blame — goes far beyond stomach butterflies and aches and pains that get worse when you’re worried.
For some, it can be as devastating and debilitating as the ‘medically diagnosable’ conditions that symptoms mimic — and she hopes the book will get people talking, while highlighting the need for better services and support.
“Psychosomatic disorders are really, really common, but for some reason, people don’t talk about them; it’s a hidden problem,” says O’Sullivan.
“To think that one in three people in a neurology clinic have this sort of disorder — and yet most people have never heard about it — is really shocking.”
It’s easy to dismiss psychosomatic problems as purely ‘imaginary’ or ‘pretend’, but O’Sullivan points out that it’s far more complex than that, and should be recognised as a “very real” condition.
Take Camilla, a successful lawyer and mum-of-two whose life is plagued by seizures, despite the fact tests all come back negative, and Yvonne who goes blind although nothing’s wrong with her eyes — two examples highlighted in O’Sullivan’s book, which weaves true stories based on her encounters with patients, and knowledge and insights garnered during her years working at the Royal London Hospital, and now at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.
It’s eventually revealed that Camilla and Yvonne’s symptoms are rooted in emotionally traumatic experiences from their past.
How these manifest themselves in such extreme physical ways is an area that remains relatively mysterious — but there is a real science to it, and O’Sullivan notes that researchers are now “much closer” to understanding the brain processes involved.
It’s believed that in psychosomatic illness, the brain has “retrained” itself to experience symptoms as though they are real.
And it’s not just public awareness that’s lacking — O’Sullivan is frustrated by the lack of knowledge and support within healthcare services, too.
“We already know that mental health is stigmatised. I think this is even more so, because it looks physical but actually it’s psychological.”
Lack of acknowledgement from doctors can add to this sense of stigma and isolation — and mean that people become trapped in impossible-seeming circumstances, where their symptoms remain a problem but aren’t being addressed.
“If somebody is having seizures everyday, the fact [tests show] they don’t have epilepsy is irrelevant to them. Can you imagine how it feels if you’re having 10 seizures a day, or you’re in a wheelchair, and you perceive that a doctor’s told you there’s nothing wrong with you?”
It’s All In Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan, Vintage Publishing, €22.50.
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