We are here to help you overcome chronic pain and other physical symptoms that may not have responded well to medical intervention.

Is there a link between the mind and body when it comes to physical suffering?​

The brain houses the mind and creates the perception of pain when it interprets signals from the rest of the body.

Sometimes these signals alert us about a physical injury or problem in our bodies and prompt us to get help. Typically, medical investigation reveals the cause of the problem, treatment ensues, and life goes on as it did before the pain started.

Other times, we are in pain or experience other discomforting symptoms but medical investigations fail to find an underlying physical problem. In these cases, treatments targeting the body (e.g., medication, physical rehabilitation, surgery) may provide limited-to-no relief. Yet, the pain and discomfort are real. And, they persist.

Scientific evidence suggests that even in the absence of structural injury, nerves and their pathways to the brain may become hyper-sensitive, transmitting intense signals of pain or discomfort (for a comprehensive scientific review, see Woolf (2010)). In other words, the brain can create pain when there is no related damage.

Beyond over-sensitized neural pathways, everyday life stresses and emotionally challenging events from the past can tax otherwise normal bodily functioning. Stress and emotions commonly colour our view of a given situation. But, they also manifest in our bodies. At the extremes, emotions and stress can lead to real, disruptive, and painful symptoms.

The recognition that a mind-body connection plays an important role in suffering from physical symptoms, including pain, has been given many names: tension myositis syndrome, mind-body syndrome, medically unexplained symptoms, somatization, psychosomatic illness, and psychophysiological disorder, to name a few.

Here are some syndromes and symptoms commonly linked to mind-body processes:

Since many of the above symptoms and syndromes can also be caused by structural disease processes, medical investigations should be considered to rule out physical causes. When medical causes are ruled out, emotional and stress-related factors can be explored.

If there is a mind-body relationship behind pain, how can psychotherapy help?

Chronic pain and other mind-body symptoms that persist are often treated from symptom reduction and discomfort management approaches. The shortcoming of these models is that they often do not address the underlying cause of pain and other physical symptoms, resulting in incomplete recovery. Thus, the traditional approach has been one of management – not elimination – of chronic pain.

Psychotherapy can eliminate or significantly alleviate pain and other mind-body symptoms by targeting that which perpetuates and causes suffering: stress and emotional difficulties.

For some, intense emotions, like anger, guilt, and grief, can be overwhelming and trigger intense anxiety – also called stress – even before emotions are brought to awareness. In such cases, anxiety and its physical symptoms (e.g., heart pounding, muscle tension, upset stomach, etc.) overshadow the underlying emotion. Over time, the chronic replacement of emotion by anxiety intensifies physical suffering, including pain.

Our approach at Union Psychology Group is to help patients overcome their painful symptoms by processing emotions that, when ignored, lead to overwhelming anxiety, physical symptoms, and pain. In other words, by helping patients feel their feelings, we break the cycle that leads to suffering.

To learn more about how we help our patients overcome their pain and other physical symptoms, please visit our page on intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy.

Can psychotherapy help with concussion symptoms that persist months after the initial injury?

Immediately following a concussion, some people may experience difficulty concentrating, blurry vision, light sensitivity, ringing in the ears, nausea, low energy, headache, and other symptoms. Within the first few hours, days, and weeks, the vast majority of people will recover naturally. As the healing process unfolds, symptoms disappear.

For some people, however, symptoms are reported for several months, and sometimes years, after the initial concussion. This phenomenon is sometimes called the post-concussion syndrome. When medical investigations do not uncover any structural causes for the continued symptoms, patients can be left frustrated and suffering. Yet, the symptoms are real. And, they persist.

Does this sound familiar? As with chronic pain, when symptoms of concussion continue for several months after the initial injury, we may apply the same principles as other mind-body conditions. At Union Psychology Group, we help patients overcome their post-concussion symptoms by addressing the underlying stress and emotional causes that perpetuate physical suffering. To learn more about how we do what we do, please visit our page on intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy.

How do I know if my physical symptoms might have an emotional component?

Our first suggestion is to consult with a licenced healthcare provider in your area, if you are concerned about symptoms affecting your health. What follows does not constitute medical advice, but is provided for your reference and is adapted from Cooper et al. (2017).

To help you reflect on the potential relationship between physical symptoms and stressful events, consider noting:

Next, consider which symptoms of anxiety you experience when you reflect on a specific stressful event.

The following personality styles have been linked to mind-body symptoms. Consider if any apply to you.

The above personality styles tend to be found in good people – people who are likable, responsible, hard working, and who care what others think. Unfortunately, people with these traits may also put significant pressure on themselves and engage in self-criticism. This internally-driven pressure plays a key role in mind-body conditions, especially when stressful events come along and severely tax one’s ability to cope.

A history of significantly stressful experiences, including those that happened during childhood, increase the risk of mind-body conditions. Symptoms tend to show up when times are difficult and stressful, even if the stress is unrecognized. If you reflect on your life story, do you see a potential link between some events and your symptoms?

If you are not sure, know that, often, it is not obvious when there is a link between mind-body symptoms and life events. If you believe there may be a relationship between your symptoms and stress, we are here to help you.

References

Woolf C. J. (2010). Central sensitization: implications for the diagnosis and treatment of pain. Pain, 152(3 Suppl), S2-15.

Cooper, A., Abbass, A., & Town, J. (2017). Implementing a Psychotherapy Service for Medically Unexplained Symptoms in a Primary Care Setting. Journal of clinical medicine, 6(12), 109. doi:10.3390/jcm6120109