5 Ways to Cope with Somatization

Author: Bria Wannamaker

So, you’ve heard about the mind-body connection. You know the impact that stress can have on your physical and mental wellbeing. You understand that it can be a good thing to cry and to express your emotions.

So, my question then is – why do we keep digging to find answers outside of ourselves to solve our symptoms? I’m curious as to why we’ve created a culture where the first line of defense against a headache is popping a couple Ibuprofen and hoping for the best, rather than lessening our workload, getting into nature, taking a few deep breaths so that oxygen can circulate your whole body rather than shallow, panicked breaths. Why do we not resort to drinking more water, eating something nutritious, sitting for 5 minutes with our eyes closed? Instead, it looks more like *takes pills, still feels like crap, Google’s “why do I have a [insert symptoms here]?” We are constantly looking to the external world to solve our problems for us. NEWS FLASH: the external world has a whole lot of problems of it’s own – if you can’t create peace from within, you may have a hard time finding it elsewhere.

“I’m curious as to why we’ve created a culture where the first line of defense against a headache is popping a couple Ibuprofen and hoping for the best…”

Now, obviously go get your symptoms and medical concerns checked out by a medical health professional. What’s important to me is that in addition to medical care, we also take the initiative to review our lifestyle choices and routines, our daily habits, and for persistent, symptoms, it’s also important that we acknowledge the role that stress, demands, and expectations can have on our health. Furthermore, if you’re holding all of that in such as, not taking breaks or having downtime, not talking to friends or family about what you’re going through, not allowing yourself to cry, not allowing yourself to have time to process (distracting), not journaling or doing a mindfulness practice, not expressing your feelings of anger, sadness, or disappointment… the list goes on. If you are unable to allow yourself time to experience, feel, process, and move on from your emotions, you will store them in your body in some way, shape, or form.

So, what is Somatization?

  • A physical symptom related to your emotional state
  • Leads to distress and difficulty with functioning (perhaps in: work, home, personal, mental, physical, sexual, social, etc.)
  • You’re often fixated or focused on the pain/discomfort
  • The pain/discomfort may or may not have a medical explanation behind it
  • The symptoms have an impact on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (ex. “I can’t do ___ because I’m worried about the discomfort”)
  • Increase in stress, anxiety, and worry surrounding symptoms
  • Physical symptoms are present the majority of the time

Examples of physical symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Back pain
  • Nausea or other gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Muscles aches
  • Numbness

LIKE I SAID, please get checked out by a medical health practitioner if you have any of the above or more – I’m not here to give you medical advice and it can be dangerous to let any of these go unchecked.

I am a mental health clinician, so I think that it’s important that also take a look at our holistic health and so I’m hoping to shed some light on the importance of also addressing your emotional and psychological needs in terms of self-care habits, lifestyle, and routine.

It may be useful to think of your pain as a messenger, pointing you in the direction to uncover what’s at the root of it. In the same way that emotions are messengers, if we are too far removed and haven’t spent time fostering the mind-body connection by listening to our feelings and needs, then these emotions will reveal themselves in another way. So, perhaps your physical discomfort is a messenger.

What I know to be true is that…

We don’t give ourselves enough credit. We work toward big milestones, planned out goals, and experience unexpected changes along the way – all while pretending that everything is perfect, barely batting an eye, and then moving onto the next objective as soon as we get to where we thought was the finish line.

Did you move this year? That’s a big deal. Was your life affected by the pandemic in someway? That’s a big deal. Are you in school or taking a certification program? That’s a big deal. Are you a mom? That’s a big deal. Do you have a family member who is ill? That’s a big deal. Even exciting milestone such as planning a wedding, traveling, or getting a new job that you love can cause stress and difficulty within your life. STOP telling yourself that it’s not a big deal. Remember, stress is anything that throws an organism out of homeostasis. A.K.A if you’re not feeling balanced, you’re under chronic demand with little time for self-care, or you feel like you’re drowning in your to-do-list AND you don’t have the skills and tools to reset yourself as an organism and come back into balance – then it’s definitely time to take a more proactive approach versus taking 1 sick day 3 months after you’re feeling burnt out.

5 strategies for you to try:

  1. Sit with your pain/discomfort/physical symptom: Acknowledge the symptom(s), give it a colour, give it a name, give it a weight. This personification of your symptoms allows you to separate self from the pain. You are not your symptoms, this is not your identity.
  2. Examine your thoughts surrounding the discomfort: What have you decided that this means about you? Pain is neutral, like I said – it’s a messenger. WE add meaning to it. Perhaps the thoughts in relation to your back pain are Ex. “I’m out of shape, I used to be so fit, I’ve let myself go, no wonder I have back pain, I can’t do anything like I used to”. These thoughts –> elicit feelings (now essentially, you feel like shit about yourself) –> which influences how we behave –> this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy; if you’re telling yourself that you can’t do something AND looking for evidence to support this, chances are, you’re going to live up to that standard.
  3. Set the bar higher: This one goes along with the above skill. Once you’ve identified what thoughts might not be serving you anymore, try shifting them. Ex. “I will try walking on a more regular basis to get my body moving, this may help with my back pain and it will help with my fitness level”
  4. Attach an emotion to it: Sit with your discomfort and feel into it. Ask yourself “if this [nausea, heartburn, indigestion, headache, back pain, joint pain, fatigue, etc.] could talk, what would it tell me?” “What emotion would it have?” Just listen. Don’t judge. Judgement can look like anxiety, worry, and stress coming up as a new mom or because of your new job, or your new home, but then you say “I should be grateful, so many people are worse off than I am”. Yes, that is true, and your pain is still valid.
  5. Take actionable steps: Look at your calendar, where do you need to schedule in time to rest, read, workout, prepare healthy meals, meditate, do yoga, shop, listen to music, listen to podcasts. Look at your calendar – when can you just say fuck it?? My health is more important and I’m not going out for drinks tonight, I’m not going to Becky’s baby shower, I’m not folding laundry today. Whatever it is – sometimes the resistance and discomfort in our bodies is a reflection of the resistance in our minds – I’m all for being social and achieving your goals but sometimes, your physical pain might be holding you back to protect you from things that you actually really, truly don’t want to do and maybe that you don’t actually need to do.

“Look at your calendar – when can you just say fuck it??”

My health is more important and I’m not going out for drinks tonight, I’m not going to Becky’s baby shower, I’m not folding laundry today.

If you would like some self-guided resources to help you dive more into the impact that our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviours have on our physical health outcomes – check my recommendations below:

I love this meditation! I do it a couple times per month or whenever I’m having difficulty relaxing.

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