When Pain Drips from the Mind to the Body

by Bill Brenner on February 12, 2010

The author on why it’s true that mental illness leads to physical sickness.

Mood music:


I’ve heard a lot of people argue over whether this person’s or that person’s aches and pains were “all in their head.” You know the types: Never any real underlying disease, but they’re always calling out of work with a headache or some intestinal discomfort.

It’s all in their head, you say?

Well, yeah.

It’s called psychosomatic illness, when mental anguish leads to physical sickness.

http://www.rodale.com/files/images/458870.jpgI’ve been there. Migraines. Brutal back pain. A stomach turned inside-out.

But it wasn’t always clear that what ailed me was in my head. Childhood illness confused matters. A huge chunk of my digestive track was in flames and spewing blood because of  Chron’s Disease. I’m told by my parents that the doctors came close to removing the colon more than once, though I don’t remember that myself; probably because the doctors had that conversation with the parents instead of the patient.

To throw it into remission, they used the maximum dose of a drug called Prednisone, which caused another kind of body blow in the form of migraines. You can read more about that in “The Bad Pill Kept me from the Good Pill,” but the bottom line is that these headaches came daily; always making me sick to my stomach.

Later in life, I developed severe back pain, the kind that would knock me onto the couch and keep me there for weeks.

All legitimate physical problems. But at some point my brain lost the ability to differentiate a real Chron’s flare-up or back spasm to an imagined one.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. It may as well have been one of those things. Because when the mind thinks it is, it has a habit of BECOMING real.

I found an article in About.com that describes the problem better than I ever could on my own:

Any illness that has physical symptoms, but has the mind and emotions as its origin is called a psychosomatic illness. Although you may be told that it’s “all in your head”, these illnesses are not imaginary. The aches and pains are very real, but because your doctor is looking for an actual physical cause, they are very tricky to diagnose and treat. The key is to look for a source of stress in the person’s life that the person is not coping with. By treating the underlying stress and depression, it may be possible to heal the physical problems as well.

For me, it was easy to separate the Chron’s episodes from the tricky stuff described above, since the disease was sitting there for the doctors to see. I was always told mental stress could trigger flare-ups and I guess they did, especially when my parents divorced 30 years ago and a lot of stress over custody ensued. I’m fairly sure the after-effects of my brother’s death set off the last real flare-up in 1986.

But the migraines and back problems seeped seamlessly into the things that were going wrong with me mentally.

Anxiety attacks felt essentially the same as a heart attack, complete with the pain shooting from the chest to the neck and down the arms. Migraines followed. Work stress often sparked migraines and back pain.

While it was difficult to separate other legitimate physical problems from those stemming from mental distress, I can tell you that dealing with my underlying OCD, depression and addiction made a lot of ailments go away.

I’m not sure I can credit it with ending the back problems. Though mental illness most likely enhanced the back pain, that problem was eventually diagnosed as three out-of-whack vertebrae the chiropractor knocks back into alignment every other week. No more imprisonment on the couch.

But these things have gone away — and have not returned — since I got a handle on the OCD and related binge-eating disorder:

–Puking up stomach acid in the middle of the night

–Numbing of the feet

–A strange poked-in-the-eye sensation that would hit me early mornings and leave me with blurred vision for a day or more.

–A dull ache in the left hand, which often got worse as my mind spun out of control with thoughts that it MIGHT be a heart-attack.

–Fatigue that would cause all my joints to ache unless I were to lie down and go to sleep.

–Heart palpatations.

All disappeared once I started to attack the core problem.

The ultimate take-away from all this is that something in your head can cause real, physical pain.

And when you deal with what’s in your head, the pain in the rest of your body can be eradicated.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Coy October 9, 2011 at 10:22 am

So, true, Bill. You can also add Conversion Disorder to this list, although you will still read descriptions of it as “hysteria”, it is a condition that the fight or flight system (triggered by stress) actually takes over, and uses up all the “juice”, so that other parts of the brain need to shut down. It is like being stuck in the go position, and you want to stop, but in reality your body has stopped, and it is only your brain that thinks you need to keep going. Because I have PTSD, this has been considered as a diagnosis for my disability. I have been in off/on therapy since I was 14, and my depression is under control, and my current therapist, and psychiatrist don’t think I have it, so I am now seeing a neuromuscular specialist….probably the last doc I will see. I was told: if he can’t figure it out, no one can….so, we will ultimately see if it is the body or the brian, or both, but in the end the only difference is treatment. The rest is as real as real can be. People need to understand that the brain controls the entire body, that chemicals control the brain, and that depression is learned by the brain from the first time it occurs, and the brain learns to repeat this cycle over and over again. It is not the fault of the person, it is their brain that causes the symptoms, so when someone says: oh, its all in your mind, well, yeah it is, but that DOES NOT mean hey, I’m making this shit up.

mazouz August 24, 2012 at 5:39 am

hi ” please i need your help . am 49 man having OCD and having panic attack while sleeping . this case is very hard to me am suffering alot when i get up screaming . i took medication .(SSRIs)but it is very bad for mysectual health .it delayes my ejaculation very much and erection .plzzzzzzzzzzzzz is there any soulationj for my mental illness . or any cure . thanx very much

Bill Brenner August 24, 2012 at 7:12 am

All I can tell you is what worked for me:

–Getting a therapist
–Prozac and Wellbutrin, though there are other medications and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else.
–A radical change in diet: Eliminating all flour and sugar, in my case.
–Spiritual growth

All the best to you. I hope you find what you need to get better.

Donna Runeric December 28, 2012 at 10:02 am

How in the name of all that’s holy (as my mother used to say) have you managed to maintain what seems to be a normal “American” life? I’ve suffered throughout my life with some of your symptoms, but on a much smaller scale and have over the years had to battle bouts of agoraphobia. I know we all handle these things differently, but my God, you’ve experienced real medical issues. I’m just going to believe men are better troopers than women and will continue trying to be less of a whiner and cry-baby. lol. Imagine–it’s only taken me 61 years to have in my head all the ammunition I need to handle traumas as they arise. And, as you know, they never stop arising.

Robert January 27, 2016 at 9:44 pm

I have OCD. It’s quite usual for me to check my pulse and calculate the pace of my heart. I even began to do it in front of strangers and if they asked I would tell them I am checking my pulse. There would never be a second follow up question though. That always worried me too, why not ask why? But, I realize its a no mans land when asking someone about there heart. It’s like..why do you itch so much? Do you have blinking problem, the answer could be something horrible and no one wants to hear that. So I got away a lot with checking my pulse without the embarrassing response of OCD.
I haven’t done that though in about two months. No palpitations, no checking, I take an anti anxiety medications and my OCD merged onto a new fear and left the pulse on the back burner. However last night I checked my pulse and it was in the mid 60s! Not bad for a young athlete but I am not one of those. I am not even close and my last readings on pulse were mid 80s at best. I freaked out thinking my heart was shutting down. I woke up my girlfriend and said I need to go to the hospital. It’s crazy because I wanted more than anything in that moment to have a palpitation, or anxiety, I wanted my heart comfortably beating at a high rate with the possibility of something questionable. All I had was this steady slow heart rate and it was not something I could debate or imagine. It was just there and after my girlfriend woke up and took my pulse it was still there. Damn. But her reaction was that it was nothing to worry about and mine was hospital, hospital, hospital. I didn’t sleep all night, went to bed in the daylight, woke up a few hours later, and then we both went to urgent care… I was scared because this was real? Wasn’t it? The Dr.s took my pulse it was not as low as we thought probably because my nervousness was finally peaking but it was still the lowest I had in some time. My EKG came out normal and there I was in the same zone as this man too. I had the something not to be debated, concerning to me because it was so out of my personal spectrum, only to have everyone say, its all good. I wanted to argue, I know there could be other uncaught issues, but I would have really had to plead to a jury that already took a consensus. I touched my hand to my neck and there was this metronome set on 4/4 .

What do I do now. My purpose is to find myths and then kill them. This wasn’t one yet it somehow went away but stayed.

This disease sucks. This is the one of the few almost reals I have had in 4 months. Each one of my problems were a factual issue, dried blood, muffled hearing and jaw aches, palpitation, then an over calm. I have to find a different interpretation for all this or stop searching for once and let it find me.

Thanks for your website. It is really comforting to see I am not alone in this.

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