The phenomenon of psychosomatics

                                                                           «It's not stress that kills, it's how you react to it»

The invisible connection between body and senses has been observed since antiquity. According to Plato, "The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated..."
Centuries later, this connection became more evident due to the development of medicine and psychology, and in 1818 the German physician Johann-Christian Heinroth coined the term "psychosomatic" (based on the Greek words psyche "soul" and soma "body") to describe transformations in the human body under the influence of mental factors.

In life, we tend to say "it's psychosomatic" when looking at someone who complains of bodily (hereafter referred to as somatic) symptoms for no apparent physical reason. However, this yet underdeveloped area encompasses much more. The study of psychosomatics as a separate subject began actively only in the 20th century. Extensive research was conducted to find the causes and mechanisms of psychosomatic disorders and appropriate treatment methods. An important role in the study of psychosomatics was played by representatives of the school of psychoanalysis, including Sigmund Freud.

By the end of the twentieth century, it became clear that psychosomatic disorders needed a broader perspective. The theory of the multifactorial nature of diseases became widespread. At the current moment, the biopsychosocial model of medicine, developed by the American physician George Engel, which treats the patient as a whole, seems to be the most comprehensive. This model assumes that every disease and disorder have several causes: biological (genetics), psychological (emotions, stress), social (living conditions and environment). However, the contribution of each of these factors varies greatly from disease to disease. For example, scientists have noticed that the greater the influence of hereditary predisposition and the environment on a particular disorder is, the smaller the contribution of the psychosomatic component will be.

But what is meant by psychosomatic? The psychosomatic spectrum can be divided into three basic types of condition:

1.    Psychosocial consequences of somatic diseases: a person's attitude toward his illness, his reaction to it, the impact of the illness on his social life, whether the person struggles with his disorder or gives up and loses all hope.

2.    Mental disorders with somatic symptoms not accompanied by organic (bodily) disorders: somatoform and conversion disorders. This group can include so-called functional disorders in which a person experiences some symptoms, but no bodily causes are found upon examination. For example, cardioneurosis (heart pain without an organic cause), irritable bowel syndrome, psychalgia (pain in the back or head without any organic cause). Hypochondriacal disorder (a person believes he or she has some serious disease and is extremely concerned about it, despite being tested negative) is also included in this group. The above-mentioned conversion disorders were first described by psychoanalysts, in particular by the Austrian psychiatrist Wilhelm Steckel, and reflect one of the mental mechanisms involved in the formation of psychosomatic symptoms - conversion (somatization). Conversion is an "escape into illness" when a person experiences emotions and stress with which he or she cannot cope psychologically, and therefore unconsciously transfers them into the body, where they cause symptoms, including temporary loss of vision, hearing, and voice.

Other mechanisms of psychosomatics include somatosensory amplification, as well as the concepts of primary and secondary benefit of illness. The first phenomenon is as follows: when a person sensitive to bodily symptoms focuses on a slight symptom (for example, a tingling in the heel), this symptom will intensify (the heel will noticeably hurt). What about the benefit? It seems that an illness should not bring a person anything "useful," but the human psyche thinks otherwise. The primary benefit (the concept introduced by Sigmund Freud) comes when his unresolved psychological conflict, anxiety, fear, i.e., emotion, which he is morally unable to cope with now, realizes itself through the disease and thus disappears. The secondary benefit comes to the sick person in the form of care by other people, a release from some responsibility or obligation, an opportunity to justify his mistakes or desires with his illness.

3.    Classical psychosomatoses, the so-called "Chicago Seven": arterial hypertension, bronchial asthma, ulcerative colitis, hyperthyroidism, neurodermatitis, rheumatoid arthritis, stomach ulcers - this category includes diseases whose development is associated with a significant influence of the psychological factor (among others).

We received an inspiring message from our user Autumn Imbri Wodyn, who shared with us her story, which is full of both serious life obstacles and spectacular successes. Her difficult journey can also be approached from a psychosomatic perspective. «By the age of 3 I had already gone through a ridiculous amount of abuse from my mom, nearly died of an infection, got seriously injured, and watched some truly evil things take place. I almost drowned at 9, and had gone through much more abuse - physical, emotional, psychological, sexual…» - she writes. This amount of stress, poor living conditions, and lack of acceptance in the family would certainly have an impact on anyone's psyche, but in some cases these factors can also play a role in the physical well-being of an individual. During her life, Autumn Wodyn was diagnosed with several serious somatic diseases, which would have significantly disrupted her life and possibly ended it soon: «I learned I'm losing the peripheral vision in my left eye, I found a lump in my breast (the year before having a biopsy confirming I'm at high risk for breast cancer), and I was diagnosed with stage 3 kidney disease - irreversible».

But Autumn found her own way to literally "outlive" the illness and became a good example of the positive aspect of psychosomatics. After a head injury caused by a car accident, she began to exercise her brain in every way she could, including by playing games. She spent about 10 years training her intellect, memory, and thinking skills to get them back to baseline. One day she discovered our project Goodville: Farm Game Adventure and began to play. This is her take on it: «I saw your game and immediately had to play it. The concept is way overdue and certainly needed now more than ever. It's one of those games that not only can I take slow - it seems to encourage it. That's a pleasant break from our fast-paced. And being able to choose how to interact with people, with rewards for being kind - that was brilliant». Autumn told us how our project helps her on her difficult journey, and how she would like to see more research on this topic, because it is undeniably relevant and important. Not only did she continue to fight, but she also decided that for the rest of her time she would live a vibrant and happy life: «There's simply something inside me that is even more stubborn than my trials. I'm savoring every moment, doing whatever I want to and I have all the confidence I ever wanted». According to Autumn, her life has never been better than it is now. Such a positive attitude, a desire to overcome her symptoms and to carry on living, could certainly play an important role in the prognosis and evolution of the disease, thus confirming the positive contribution of the psychosomatic component.

At the end of her message, Autumn Imbri Wodyn quotes Albert Camus:

“My dear,

In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.

In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.

In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.

I realized, through it all, that…

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.»

In this story we see a particular case reflecting the image of psychosomatic phenomena as a whole. Both the negative and positive aspects of the influence of the psyche on the entire organism are difficult to examine and diagnose accurately. But despite this, treatment and prevention of psychosomatic disorders are available to everyone, and the need to spread knowledge about this phenomenon in our stress-filled world is increasing rapidly. And that is why we strive to create a way to support and encourage a positive attitude among all those who are experiencing psychological or bodily difficulties in their lives. After all, stress and diseases are often impossible to avoid, but you can learn to understand them and react to them in a healthy and positive way.

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