This article was published in dr. rosiello’s sedona times psychology column in 2009.
Do you remember the old song when we were kids that went, "The head bone is connected to the neck bone, the neck bone is connected to the back bone," and so on?
Actually, if you know the words to that song, please write to me c/o this newspaper with the lyrics, so I can stop trying to remember them.
One of the problems with this head-bone song is it doesn’t give any mention to what is underneath the cranial, the mind. Nor does it indicate the mind in connected to the rest of the body.
It’s not just this song that give the mind/body connection short shrift, but pretty much most of us tend to think that what affects the mind has nothing to do with the body and vice-versa.
Yet, if we ignore our daily stress, which means if we ignore the mind’s anxiety, if we don’t credit our mental processes with the same importance as we give to our body’s processes or stressors, the mind gives up on us and takes the body into its own hands.
So, why do we do ignore the mind? One reason is that it’s only been in contemporary times that the mind/body link became formally studied by people interested in psychology.
A first publication on the mind/body connection was around 1895 by Freud, when he wrote about a patient who had a high level of anxiety who began to develop symptoms of pregnancy. She had all the physical symptoms, including a distended abdomen. In time, as her anxiety lessened, her symptoms dissolved and there was no medical evidence of a pregnancy.
How did she make her body do that? The anxiety of her mind was too great, too unacceptable, or too distressing for her to manage and her mind handed it off to her body to present as a problem. There was no accepted social or medical opportunity/outlet for a Victorian woman to express her emotional problems, except through illness or hysteria (her pregnancy was diagnosed ‘hysterical pregnancy’). For the most part, our society is now a bit too savvy to come up with such an obvious mind/body expression of feelings or anxiety, but such symptomotology still exists in less sophisticated areas of the world.
Perhaps a more contemporary illustration is about one of my patients who has suffered from migraines for many years that manifest around the stress or anxiety she experiences in relation to her family visits. If she spends time with her family, she often finds herself closeted in a bedroom trying to recover from the migraine that lasts until she leaves them. Her parents believe her migraines are ‘all in her mind’ and they fairly dismiss her physical pain.
However, my patient’s migraines are so severe that they have created nerve damage behind her eyes and she has undergone an eye operation to reduce the pressure. Her medical doctors can find nothing physical that is creating the migraines or the resulting eye damage.
To my way of thinking, her migraines have become an alternate form of expressing her anxiety and/or anger toward her family, since her parents will not accept her expressions of anxiety or anger. It is only in therapy that this patient can tell her true emotions about her family, and her expression of pent up feeling is beginning to reduce the painful degree and frequency of her migraines.
A while ago, I ran a group for women who had COPD, chronic operative pulmonary disease. It was a group of older women who had lung reduction due to years of smoking or smog or just various environmental effects on their lungs.
One of the biggest complaints they had was about panic attacks, or anxiety attacks. As a result of having reduced lung capacity, these women had difficulty taking in a deep breath and because they were now concerned about their pulmonary health they became hypersensitive and therefore anxious about breathing difficulties.
When they couldn’t breath deeply, at will, they became anxious, and panicked that they couldn’t breath and, as a result, set off a full fledged anxiety attack of shortness of breath, light-headedness, dizziness, ringing in their ears, distorted vision, etc. Many of these women constantly felt physically vulnerable because the mind would not free them from feeling anxious and fearful. Their physical symptoms were exacerbated by the mind.
Why do we ignore the illnesses of the mind and credit daily stressors and anxieties as being unreal, and why do we credit illnesses of the body as real? Why do we hear comments about our anxieties, such as "Don’t worry so much, just let forget about it"? Or, "Let it roll off your back." Or, "Don’t make such a big thing about it." Or, "Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps."
Why do we make such remarks about mental stressors? If you develop a skin disease should someone tell you, "Forget about it and just move on"? If someone has a heart attack, should we say, "Don’t let it get you down?" And, if someone develops diabetes, or thyroid, or similar illnesses, should we tell these individuals to "Just don’t make a big deal out of it?"
Why do we credit such physical problems as more creditable illnesses than emotional illnesses? Many skin diseases, some heart diseases, a lot of thyroid conditions, diabetes, and there are some severe physical illnesses that have their origins in our mind, they can begin or become exacerbated by our mental stressors and anxieties.
So, let’s take it from the top: If we know that the head bone is connected to the neck bone and the shin bone is connected to the foot bone, then we’re half way to recognizing the problem that I’m trying to highlight: That the mind is connected to and can hurt or nurture the body. If we take care of the mind by giving it an opportunity to discuss emotions, to express both rational and irrational thoughts, to say what we fear, what we wish for, what we desire; then, we are allowing ourselves to talk about our anxieties. It is in therapy that the origins of such emotions can get re-worked so that the mind and body can find a more compatible functioning.