Many physical problems, from mere discomfort to chronic pain to serious illness, have psychological as well as physical roots.
Of course, viruses, bacteria, muscle strain and other physical factors play a large role in making us feel awful. However, these troublemakers are more likely to do damage if we are also troubled by distressing emotions such as fear, anger, guilt or sadness.
The problem isn’t the negative emotions themselves everyone feels them at one time or another. It’s repressing these emotions that get our bodies into the act. When we stuff our feelings inside instead of expressing them, the body’s response is to send a physical signal which can’t be ignored so easily.
In my 30-plus years as a family physician and then as a psychiatrist, I’ve noticed that when people identify the stressful situation that preceded a physical symptom and then talk about the feelings associated with that situation the physical problem often goes away and their emotional burden lightens as well.
I do not mean to trivialize illness, nor do I claim that talking about your feelings is a substitute for good medical treatment. Physical problems are very real and may well require physical intervention. But if the emotional roots of a problem are neglected, the issue will keep showing up in the body in one way or another until it’s resolved.
Decoding your body’s language
How do you uncover the hidden emotions that are behind a physical problem? Try thinking back on the stresses that were present in your life just before the illness occurred…or simply review recent events that might have upset you.
Since you might not recognize certain situations as upsetting, it’s a good idea to have a friend (or therapist) help you with this step. Others may spot connections you missed.
Once identified, get those painful feelings off your mind (and body) by talking to someone about them.
If you have trouble identifying the source, pick up clues from the physical location of the problem. Although each person’s situation is unique, I have observed a number of common themes in my patients (and myself).
Cold hands and feet
When hands and feet get cold or numb, it’s usually because the nervous system has signaled the arteries to contract, reducing blood supply to the extremities. What causes this to occur? I’ve noticed that the phenomenon often seems to strike people who are reluctant to “reach out” for their desires they’re afraid of getting the very thing they want.
Example I: The old cliché about brides or grooms getting “cold feet” isn’t just an expression it’s a genuine physical phenomenon that expresses the conflict between the longing for connection and the fear of responsibility.
Example II: When I took up skiing in my 50s, my feet and hands got so icy cold no matter how many layers of socks and mittens I wore that I couldn’t enjoy myself. As I thought about the issue, I remembered that although I had always longed to learn to ski, this pastime had been beyond my family’s means. I realized that I was terrified of enjoying the kind of carefree pleasure that was denied my parents.
As I faced this conflict, I became more relaxed…and now I’m quite comfortable on the slopes!
For many people, the throat is where they store tension when they have been slighted, insulted or otherwise rejected. These wounds to the spirit create an urgent need for reassurance, comfort and love.
On a primitive level, we associate those yearnings with food and especially the security we felt as nursing infants.
Years later, when we feel rejected, the throat contracts instinctively, as though to re-create that old feeling of comfort. But when comfort isn’t forthcoming, the protective mucus that lines the back of the throat dries up, leaving the area vulnerable to incoming germs.
When your feelings are hurt, say so to yourself, to the person who hurt you (if appropriate)… and to other people, if the insult was serious. Be sure the people you tell about the incident can be depended upon to respond with the kindness and reassurance you crave.
Constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other problems related to elimination tend to be associated with holding in “nasty” feelings anger, spitefulness, jealousy, disappointment because we’re afraid people won’t like the “real” us.
Hemorrhoids are another expression of this conflict.
Example: A woman in one of my psychotherapy groups was plagued with constipation. No one in the group had ever heard her raise her voice. Encouraged to talk about her childhood, she described growing up as the middle sibling and learning to keep her feelings to herself in order to avoid confrontation. As an adult, she continued to squelch her own needs in favor of tending to the demands of her husband and children. As she became more comfortable discussing her feelings freely with the group, she gradually learned to stand up for herself, and constipation ceased to be a problem for her
Lower back pain
Carrying too much weight can cause the muscles supporting the back to go into spasm, leading to acute or chronic pain. The excess weight can be physical or emotional when we feel overburdened and want someone to take care of us for a change.
Example: A middle-aged man developed back trouble after his aging mother came to live with him and his wife. He loved his mother and wanted to help her, but having her join the household and arranging for her care put him under a great deal of stress. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings by airing his complaints and he also felt selfish and guilty about resenting her.
When he was finally able to talk to his wife about his feelings, he no longer felt as though he were carrying the burden alone. Once his back didn’t need to speak for him, the pain lessened dramatically.
How to deal with hidden feelings
Though many people do find therapy valuable, you don’t necessarily have to talk to a therapist to discharge these emotions. A friend, relative, colleague or member of the clergy can be just as helpful if that person can be counted on to be supportive.
You may not even need a long, drawn-out ranting session. Often it’s enough simply to acknowledge the previously buried feeling (“That made me really mad”) and have someone affirms your reaction (“I can see why you felt that way”).
If you’re concerned about wearing out your friends or being viewed as a complainer, spread the burden around. Mention the issue briefly to a few different people. You’ll feel better each time you talk about it.