Mental illness can lead to physical sickness. It’s a simple fact that some people find hard to believe.
I often hear people arguing over whether this person’s or that person’s aches and pains are “all in their head.” You know the type: There’s 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?
It’s called psychosomatic illness, when mental anguish leads to physical sickness.
I’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. As a child I was sick a lot with Crohn’s Disease, and that confused matters later on.
To throw the Crohn’s Disease into remission, doctors used the maximum dose of Prednisone, which caused 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 and always made 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.
In the last month, I’ve gotten an unwanted refresher course in what all that was like. I wrecked my back and was prescribed Prednisone for my troubles. The mood swings and depression I remembered returned. Thankfully, I’ve turned that corner.
The earlier examples were all legitimate physical problems. But at some point my brain lost the ability to differentiate a real Chrohn’s flare-up or back spasm from an imagined one.
When the mind thinks the body has suffered a trauma, it has a habit of becoming real.
Doctors always warned me that mental stress could trigger Crohn’s flare-ups, and I guess it did, especially when my parents divorced. I’m fairly sure my brother’s death set off the last real flare-up in 1986.
The migraines and back problems, meanwhile, 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 anxiety made a lot of ailments mostly go away.
When you deal with what’s in your head, the pain in the rest of your body can be eased and even eradicated.
Psychosomatic illness still visits me on occasion. But it’s much better than the old life of perpetual pain.