Mind-Body Connection and Psychosomatic Illness

Some doctors think that 50 percent of physical illnesses are psychosomatic in nature.  Psychosomatic disorders defined:

Psychosomatic disorders are conditions where mental stresses and problems create or contribute to physical symptoms that are not associated with any particular physiological disease. While almost any physical symptom can be psychosomatic in nature, the most common psychosomatic disorders are pain disorderhypochondriasissomatization disorder, and conversion disorder. Additionally, mental stresses can cause or worsen physical symptoms, such as migraines, tension headaches, sexual dysfunction, hypertension, and gastrointestinal problems.” (Full wisegeek.com entry)

In short, there’s a mind-body connection, and this connection has significant role in determining physical health.  Health is an expression of one’s emotional state.  Those who handle stress well suffer fewer physical ailments and have fewer allergies, while those who struggle with stress will be sickly, likely costing businesses and taxpayers billions in lost productivity and health care costs.

Some think the best way to ensure physical health is to avoid stress.  They seek stress-free vacations, stress-free jobs, stress-free neighborhoods, friends, kids, pets, and events.  They reduce amount and scope of their responsibilities.   For them, heaven is the absence of stress and competition.

Then there are those who welcome stress, prepare for it by putting themselves in stressful situations over and over, working through it again and again.  They try to make themselves inured to stress, even motivated by it.  They seek stressful careers, stressful moments, like taking the game deciding shot.  They seek challenges, they’re not afraid of competition and failure.  They thrive on stress because it gives them an opportunity to test themselves, to gain self-knowledge.  They aim to become mentally tough enough to handle anything.

The problem with stress avoidance is that shit happens all the time, no matter how much we try to create heaven on earth.  So much of life is cruel, lonely, unpredictable, and filled with random acts of violence.  Stress is inevitable and those unprepared to handle it crumble emotionally and physically.  It’s not surprising that poor management of stress can manifest itself in physical symptoms.  Medical historian Edward Shorter:

Most of the medical symptoms your typical American suffers from are psychosomatic–in other words, they can’t be traced to any organic cause but are rather the result of some mind-body interaction. The symptoms may be real, but the cause is psychological, stemming from depression, anxiety, or stress. Today, this manifests itself in the headaches, backaches, fatigue, diarrhea, dizziness, and joint pains that concern so many patients.”

While psychosomatic disorders have always existed, with symptoms changing according to cultural trends, I wonder if there’s been an increase (relative to population) in such disorders.  Epidemiologists have noticed and are puzzled by a dramatic rise in asthma and food allergies in the US.  One theory is that increased use of antibiotics have made people much more susceptible to certain illnesses.  The “body’s normal balance of gut microbes, antibiotics may prevent our immune system from distinguishing between harmless chemicals and real attacks,” writes New Scientist writer James Randerson.  Others blame diet and/or over-sanitized homes and lifestyles.  Could the rise also be attributed to Americans becoming less prepared to handle stress? If that is the case, what can we do about it?

As mentioned earlier, stress avoidance isn’t effective and can significantly lower productivity and increase incidences of illness anytime heaven isn’t on earth.  Other option –  for businesses, this is the only option — is to accept that life is “short, brutish, and nasty” and build mental toughness so one is better prepared for random shit that happens daily.  So how can we become mentally tougher?

Home life and school.
Mental toughness is first developed at home and at school.  Just as infants protected from germs and bacteria will develop impaired immune systems, children who are free of responsibility, protected from failure, and coddled after every failure or difficulty or looming crisis will lack the mental toughness to adapt to new situations and will likely seek coddling and escape throughout life.

Schools without high standards (any college will do, AP and SAT scores don’t matter, just make sure everyone graduates) will produce weak and whiny graduates who demand undeserved attention and status and salaries.  The main difference between a middling school and a top school isn’t resources or class size.  It’s the school culture and standards (set by leadership).  The reason Phillips Academy Exeter is able to produce Mark Zuckerberg, or Lakeside a Bill Gates, or Stuyvesant Nobel Laureates is because their students are placed in the most competitive, stressful, over-scheduled environment (many New England boarding schools schedule classes 6 days per week and require participation in athletics) they have ever experienced so that they will someday be able to handle working 100 hours a week.  These students are not coddled and are given a lot of responsibility.  They’re expected to grow accustomed to non-stop work, to compare themselves against the best in the world. I don’t understand why some parents think that childhood and adolescence should be about the absence of stress, the carefree life.  Adolescence is the ideal time to make building mental toughness a habit.  Those who don’t work on mental toughness during adolescence likely won’t ever develop mental toughness because they’ll likely be placed and stuck in low stress jobs and thus never be given opportunity to develop mental toughness.

(I suspect some parents, wanting the best for their kids and desiring upward mobility, try to parent as they perceive those socio-economically ahead of them do.  Some may think the wealthy pamper and coddle their kids, provide for them stress free environments and whatever resources they want to make them “successful.”  Some do, but many, especially those of Puritan lineage, deliberately don’t.  Gossip Girl isn’t an accurate representation of the American aristocracy).

If most “schools won’t let children grow up,” as educator John Taylor Gatto tells it, then work will.  Well, more so than school at least. Work is the last chance for those who never worked on their mental toughness while in school and is probably what most should be doing instead of wasting critical learning years in ineffective schools that instill bad habits and teach outdated knowledge (most people should drop out of school after 8th grade).  Problem is (especially in a recessionary economy), those who’ve never worked on mental toughness have a tougher time finding and keeping jobs.  A parent once asked me why his kid couldn’t keep a job he secured for him, why he “can’t act rationally and responsibly, do what’s best for him.”  My response was that he never developed the habits, the mental toughness to keep a job.  Got nothing to do with doing what’s best, what’s reasonable, rational.  Irrational habits are everywhere (drug addiction, controversial diets). We’re irrational because we’re not robots.  More than anything else, we’re creatures of habit. He’s just doing what he’s always done.  It’s unreasonable to expect him to make a sudden lifestyle change.

Armed forces is probably the best option for those who didn’t have an opportunity to work on mental toughness.  I’ve been told that they’re far more patient employer than most private businesses, and have a good track record at instilling a sense of responsibility and improving mental toughness. They’re one of the few organizations that deliberately tries to make its employees mentally tough. I’ve been impressed with every retired colonel and sergeant I’ve met, and most who’ve been honorably discharged from service.

My hunch is that attitude toward life and work can also affect physical health.  Those who are optimistic and find work fun and purposeful are probably more able to handle stressful situations, more likely to grow mentally stronger.  Those who are pessimistic and unsure of their purpose in life are likely to quit life or seek escape in the form of cheap thrills.  That’s why I focus so much on developing employee attitudes.  If they have the right attitude toward life and work, everything else will come together.

The point is, emotional health is as important as diet and exercise for the maintenance of physical health.  It’s important we spend some time each day reviewing our decisions and attitudes and make little changes to improve our attitude and mental toughness.  Doing so will not only improve our productivity and reduce health care costs, it’ll help us live happier, more meaningful lives.



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