Understanding psychosomatics: The connection between mind and body

June 6, 2024

Physical complaints are not always caused by an underlying organic illness. If mental and physical suffering are related, we speak of psychosomatics. But what exactly does this mean?

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What is Psychosomatics

Psychosomatics refers to the relationship between our mental and physical health. It explores how our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can influence the way that our body functions and our overall well-being. Psychosomatic medicine highlights the inseparable connection between the mind and body, emphasizing that our psychological state can significantly impact our physical health – and vice versa. 

The Mind-Body Connection

At the heart of psychosomatics lies the mind-body connection. This concept suggests that our mental processes, such as stress, anxiety, or depression, can manifest physically in the form of various symptoms or illnesses. For example, chronic stress may lead to tension headaches, digestive issues, or weakened immunity, illustrating the profound impact of psychological states on bodily functions. 

Yet this connection is not only limited to the more uncomfortable emotions. Emotional states such as happiness, relief and gratitude can contribute to a greater sense of physical health and well-being. A well-researched example of this is the practice of gratitude – which regulates cortisol (the hormone responsible for stress) production in the brain and reduces anxiety. As humans, we tend to search for solutions which are proportional to the intensity of our emotions. So, big emotions = searching for big solutions. But the truth is, implementing small practices into your everyday life (such as a small gratitude list every evening before bed) really does go a long way in rewiring your brain towards greater well-being. 

Embodiment

An important concept in the world of psychosomatics is that of embodiment. This refers to the experience of being present and connected with one's body. In somatic practices, embodiment involves cultivating a deeper awareness of bodily sensations, movements, and posture. To be embodied means to have agency over your bodily reactions, which may look like knowing how to self-regulate from an intensely stressful event, or knowing when we need rest instead of planning another event. 

Our bodies are constantly reacting to the world around us through our senses – such as jumping when we hear a loud noise or creating saliva when we walk by a pizza restaurant. When we focus on deepening our bodily awareness, therefore becoming more embodied, we can notice the more subtle signs of our body’s needs, such as rest and recovery, before the signs turn to pain or psychosomatic disease. This heightened awareness leads to a profound sense of self-awareness and can serve as a powerful tool for healing and self-discovery.


Influence of the Gut-Brain Axis

A field of research with increasing interest and results is that of the intricate relationship between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis. This bidirectional communication system influences both mental and physical health. For instance, disturbances in gut microbiota can contribute to mood disorders like anxiety or depression, underscoring the importance of gut health in maintaining overall well-being. 


Emotional Regulation in Somatics

Our emotions have a profound physiological component. When we experience intense emotions like fear, joy, or sadness, our bodies respond with changes in heart rate, breathing patterns, or muscle tension. Understanding these physiological cues (becoming more embodied) can enhance emotional awareness and facilitate effective emotional regulation, promoting a harmonious mind-body connection. Somatic practices can regulate our emotions by metabolizing them through our bodies. One of the core aspects of somatic therapies is emotional regulation. By tuning into bodily sensations and breath, we can cultivate greater awareness of our emotional experiences. Techniques such as deep breathing, body scans, or progressive muscle relaxation can help manage emotions effectively, promoting a sense of balance and well-being.

Nervous System Regulation

The autonomic nervous system plays a central role in psychosomatics. It consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, governing the body's stress response and relaxation mechanisms. Something I incorporate often into therapy sessions with clients is teaching techniques to regulate the nervous system, something that you can always do because your body is always available to you. Effective nervous system regulation through practices like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can promote a state of balance and resilience, supporting overall mental and physical health. 

Yet we often need to regulate our nervous system in the exact moment of sudden stress or anxiety, when going to a yoga class isn’t available. In these moments, quick breathing techniques or a temperate change in our body (such as running your hands under cold water) can go a long way in decreasing the initial intensity of the stress in our bodies. What’s most important is that nervous system regulation is a practice and skill that we can constantly develop, just like the process of becoming more embodied.

Types of Somatic Therapies

Somatic therapies encompass a range of practices that focus on the body's role in psychological health. Biofeedback, for instance, utilizes real-time physiological data to enhance self-awareness. Mindfulness-based therapies like MBSR emphasize present-moment awareness to manage stress and promote relaxation. Somatic experiencing integrates bodily sensations to address trauma, and Somatic Stress Release is a technique of going through a full stress cycle in safe conditions, with your therapist, where you can re-learn to approach a stressful situation in controlled circumstances. 

What to choose - somatic or talk therapy?

One might wonder if somatic therapies are better or worse than ‘regular’ talk therapies, where you sit with your therapist and talk about your inner world. Both have their contributions to health and the best scenario is when they are used complimentarily. If you are in a therapeutic process, you might feel a range of bodily symptoms when digging deep into difficult emotions or traumatic events. This may include heat, dizziness, or even a sense of confusion after leaving a therapy session. This is why any type of physical activity after a therapy session is a great way to integrate all the emotions that were stirred up. Going for a walk or doing a few stretches gives our bodies a chance to catch up to everything that the mind has processed. 

Psychosomatic Symptoms in Mental Health Diagnoses and Psychosomatic Disorders – the differences 

Psychosomatic symptoms manifest alongside common mental health diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, or burnout. Individuals experiencing depression often report physical symptoms like fatigue or body aches. Similarly, heightened anxiety can lead to chest tightness, digestive disturbances, or muscle tension. Recognizing these psychosomatic manifestations is crucial for comprehensive mental health assessment and treatment.

A different aspect is that of a psychosomatic disorder. A psychosomatic disorder is a condition of the nervous system being dysregulated to the point of structural damage to bodily organs. It is an example of how psychological stress can lead to physical distress. Psychological disorders include gastrointestinal problems, migraines and tension headaches, pain in the spine and pelvis, respiratory disturbances, hypertension, dermatitis and ulcers. Now it is important to remember that each of these ailments can have a wide range of reasons behind it – a psychosomatic disorder is diagnosed when these symptoms cannot be fully explained by a known medical condition, or are not the direct effects of a substance. In this case, these symptoms will be diagnosed as a Somatic Symptom Disorder, as stated in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition). 

Psychosomatic Disorder Treatment

Psychosomatic clinics, rehabilitation clinics, and private clinics offer specialized care tailored to individual needs. Psychosomatic clinics focus on the interconnectedness of mental and physical health, providing comprehensive treatment. Acute clinics address immediate concerns, while rehabilitation clinics support long-term recovery. To find the right clinic, utilize resources like https://www.klinikfinder-psychosomatik.de/ offering details into psychosomatic rehabilitation clinics in Germany.

In addition to the therapeutic options mentioned, it's noteworthy that the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Edition (ICD-11) recognizes burnout syndrome as a legitimate disorder. This recognition carries significance for insurance coverage, as many insurance companies acknowledge burnout as a valid reason for official sick leave. The ICD-11's acknowledgment of burnout syndrome provides a standardized framework for diagnosis, making it easier for individuals to navigate insurance processes and obtain the necessary support during their recovery journey. When experiencing burnout-related psychosomatic symptoms, individuals can consult with their healthcare providers and inquire about the possibility of utilizing official sick leave benefits, fostering a more supportive and understanding approach in the workplace and insurance contexts.

Regarding therapy and rehab payment, it often depends on health insurance. While some plans cover rehabilitation costs, details vary. Readers are encouraged to contact their health insurance company for specific information, ensuring a clear understanding of coverage and potential out-of-pocket expenses.

Conclusion

In conclusion, psychosomatics provides a holistic framework for understanding the connection between our mental and physical health. By recognizing and addressing the interplay between psychological factors and physical functions, we can cultivate greater resilience and well-being. There are always preventative measures that can be taken before reaching a point when intervention is needed, such as when a psychosomatic disorder is diagnosed. And if that is the case, there are many ways of regulating back to health. Embracing mind-body interventions and somatic practices empowers individuals to embark on a journey of healing and transformation, nurturing a balanced and integrated approach to health. It is a journey that you can always embark on yourself through learning nervous system regulation skills and practicing embodiment. And it is a journey that can be enhanced and supported by a wide array of somatic therapies and techniques. The world of psychosomatics is becoming increasingly popular and creates a whole picture of mind-body health, alongside other psychotherapeutic approaches. 

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