One of the ego defenses people sometime develop is somatization, or experiencing physical symptoms for an underlying psychological problem such as anxiety. This is different from faking an illness for one’s own benefit. It is an unconscious channeling of emotions into a type of symbolic communication from the body.
Germs are germs and every illness cannot be blamed on an emotional cause, but most of us have experienced somatization in some form or other. Someone “gets under our skin,” and we feel flushed and rashy. We have a heartbreak and feel a heavy physical pain in our chest. We find it difficult to speak and may even have a sore throat that can be a way of acting out an inability to speak our truth. Sometimes children complain of true stomachaches when they are faced with an environment that they perceive as stressful. There is evidence that growing up in a family where physical illness results in special attention may even cause this defense to persist more strongly into adult life. However, I have learned the hard way not to be dismissive of childhood complaints after one of my children became seriously ill and had major surgery following minimizing of stomach distress.
Distinguishing the cause of physical symptoms should always begin with a consult with a physician and be judiciously watched. If and when no physical diagnosis is evident, it may be time to look for underlying psychological causes of the distress.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help by validating the very real symptoms instead of saying it’s “all in your head.” Interventions for stress relief and pain management can be helpful as the unconscious problems can be brought to the surface and be dealt with more directly. Sometimes medication may be an option when the chronic pain has been accompanied by depression and anxiety.
A close working relationship between therapist and client offers hope that this defense can be lowered when it is safe to look for truth. There is a saying that the truth will set you free, but first it may make your miserable. This journey happens best with support.