Physical wellness is an important aspect of life. Any change in physical health can have major impact on our emotional state, from having a cold during the winter, to an injury that is taking time to heal, or even to a serious illness or hospitalisation. Physical symptoms and chronic health conditions can be very stressful and difficult to manage. They can seriously impact a person’s quality of life. It can be worrying when physical symptoms are not found to have a medical cause, or when a person is told their symptoms could be related to stress. It can also be hard to adjust to a change in our health. When people develop physical symptoms they tend to seek medical interventions, however emotional stressors may contribute to these symptoms or interfere with their management.
Although medicine has previously treated our bodies and minds quite separately, there is a growing awareness and understanding of the mind-body connection and the need for whole-person treatment. Sometimes physical symptoms are easily explained as in the examples above, but at other times they are much more difficult. Some people with physical symptoms have seen many health professionals and alternative therapists in a search for diagnosis or treatment before being referred to a psychologist.
Doctors may use terms such as somatic disorders, conversion disorders or medically unexplained symptoms to describe some physical symptoms that cannot be easily identified with typical medical tests. The term ‘functional somatic symptoms’ is the most helpful in current use. However, some people feel that doctors are telling them ‘this symptom is all in your head’. This can be very frustrating and discourage people from seeking help. This is unfortunate as delays in treatment can lead to worse outcomes. Recent research suggests that psychological interventions can be effective in reducing the impact of functional symptoms.
It makes sense then, that it could be helpful to seek support from a psychologist when experiencing certain physical symptoms. The most commonly reported functional somatic symptoms are musculoskeletal pain, persistent headache, chronic tiredness, chest pain, heart palpitations and gastric symptoms. People with these symptoms may find psychological support useful. People who have been diagnosed with chronic health conditions may also find it useful to help identify and learn to manage emotional stressors. For others, anxiety about their current health or potential health issues create a lot of stress that could be addressed by consulting a psychologist.
If you think that your physical symptoms are having a negative impact on your mental health, or that your emotional stressors are making your physical symptoms worse consult your GP to determine whether a referral to a psychologist may benefit you. You can also contact MyLife Psychologists for more information.
MyLife Psychologists provide assessment and treatment of functional somatic symptoms and health anxiety from our practices in Alexandria.
Written by Dr Freya Smith, Clinical Psychologist