Intrapsychic Omnipresence in Bodily Symptoms

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Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Intrapsychic Omnipresence in Bodily Symptoms

Cass Barnes

Sometimes disease and illness just show up. For these medical conditions, a doctor usually tells us what is "wrong" physically. These scientific observations determining diseases or symptoms leave people wondering if there is something behind the cell that created the malfunction. Perhaps one's psyche; which is the mind functioning as the center of thought, conscious or unconscious, and interconnected with the physical environment, can effect the body positively and negatively. An indirect way of dealing with psychological conflict is to intuitively or unconsciously convert it into symptomatic illness. However, this does not get rid of the emotions or the symptoms, for this is not the root of the problem. It is only through recognition of the their intuition or repressed emotions that people may come to heal themselves. It is difficult although possible for some to assign every illness or symptom to some underlying psychic cause; but that is usually whimsically referred to as "new age" and "mystical". It is a person's own personal belief whether she created her diabetes, or whether he created his cancer as a result of psychological and emotional conflict and trauma. Therefore, we can only look at the facts to postulate the argument that a lack of psychological well being manifests itself somatically. The best way to examine the notion that psychological factors affect medical conditions is with the neurosis Hysteria.

Hysteria is also known now as Conversion Disorder or Dissociation, in which unconscious or emotional psychological conflict converts into a bodily disturbance (2). An example of this is anxiety. Hysteria is diagnosed as psychological stress accompanied with physical symptoms. Interestingly, despite the multiple physical symptoms there is no anatomical or organic basis for any of them. Although conversion disorder is a physical manifestation, there is no physical cause. In the case of hysteria, the mind or the psyche is neglected by the person who represses emotional trauma, and these then divert themselves into the body as a means of expression or escape. These patients often times do not know what is wrong with themselves because the repression was unconscious and out of their control. Accordingly, the physical symptoms in hysteria are a result of the person's lack of psychological control, which is unconscious not voluntary.

During the 19th century, French Neurologist J.M. Charcot and Psychologist P. Janet emphasized that "morbid ideas could produce physical manifestations" and that hysteria was caused by the psyche not the body (1). This reference highlights the notion that physical symptoms reflect psychic states. Freud also believed that hysterical symptoms were symbolic of a repressed unconscious "event" or psychic trauma not properly expressed at the time (2). One must appreciate Freudís assertion of unconsciousness in the pressed event. Some of the physical manifestations of hysteria or conversion are expressed as blindness, paralysis, ataxia, epilepsy, amnesia, anaesthesia, aphonia (loss of voice), and melancholia (3). The same symptoms were also seen in Breuerís patients like Anna O. One of the most classic of all psychosomatic disorders was the hysteric Dora, Freud's patient. At the age of eighteen she had developed a range of symptoms such as hemicranial headaches, attacks of nervous coughing, tussis nervosa (inflammation of nose and throat), appendicitis, aphonia, fatigue, together with amnesia, dyspnoea (aggravation), hysterical unsociability, and depression. As Freud describes it, Dora "was clearly satisfied neither with herself nor with her family: her attitude towards her father was unfriendly, and she was on very bad terms with her mother....and she tried to avoid social intercourse" (6). Dora also had traumatic sexual encounters with a man which she repressed as well. Clearly Dora had psychological stress, and psychological trauma due to the resulting sexual fears. Dora diverted her repressed sexual encounters and familial conflict into her psyche, which created a plethora of symptoms.

Similar symptoms are also seen in dissociative states where the individual may suffer from "dissociative control" and "dissociative awareness" in that he or she can not consciously control actions and is not aware of what experiences took place (5). For example, amnesia and fugue states represent the person's inability to recollect what actions took place. In fugue states, they are consciously aware of the actions, but they do not remember. Amnesia in hysterics does not come as a result of brain lesion, but as a self-induced protective erasing of an emotional traumatic experience. These states, like hysteria, address the person's involuntary control of their internal experience and worldly actions. Since there was no organic basis for the physical symptoms, physicians like Breuer and Neurologist Charcot in this era used suggestion, free association and hypnosis to free the patients from their symptoms (1). They found that letting the hysteric talk through her conflicts "lead to the disappearance of her symptoms whenever she was able to recollect their root events" (1). This sort of treatment worked because the mental conflict was unknown as far as the patient was concerned. The symptoms served as a psychological defense to banish painful anxiety from consciousness. Therefore, the use of hypnosis, and what later became psychoanalysis, helped in ridding symptoms because the Psychoanalyst was able to draw out unconscious traumatic memories and bring them to conscious awareness to begin a process of mental and emotional healing.

When was the last time you heard about Hysteria? Probably the last time you talked about the Salem Witch Trials. Hsyteria is not a prominent illness as many others today. Where did it go? Have there been more mental illnesses that have taken over or are we just rolling up more names to the old one? Hysteria is the only disease or disorder that has an actual psychological basis. Even some of the psychological disorders like depression and schizophrenia are known to have some physical basis. However, maybe every disease has an underlying emotional memory that is only accessible when brought to consciousness. It could be that every symptom has a negative mental association, and when that is recognized, and released, then the person is able to heal. Perhaps physical and mental illnesses are different across people because they psychologically choose to deal differently with the external environment and certain experiences, and therefore the manifestation of their illnesses. When we hear about miracle cures it makes us wonder what it is that served to heal them spontaneously. It could be that psychologically the person decided what they needed to change in their life in order to be at ease and healthy with themselves. The psychological aspect may be more important in curing diseases than we may think. What is unknown to the normal observer or the people who are actually diseased, is whether or not they have the personal choice to control emotional fluctuations and mental patterns. Is conversion of psychological conflict automatic and involuntary, or can that be governed by our Self?

The tasteful opinion that the individual is in control of his or her health, mental or physical, comes down to personal beliefs. Perhaps all illnesses, diseases, and symptoms stem from psychological disturbance. Clearly, hysteria is conversion of psychological conflict into the body. History tells us that physical symptoms associated with hysteria and dissociative states are a result of negative mental and emotional states. These negative states rather than being released were pushed back further in the mind to the unconscious. It was only through the catharsis of psychotherapeutics that patients could understand the unconscious, which irrevocably led to their symptomatic illnesses. Hysteria is one of the few diseases that is psychological in origin, and may be the only one. Yet, it is possible that all other diseases follow the psychological path as well. Ph.D Louise Hay writes "I have learned that for every condition in our lives, there is a NEED FOR IT. Otherwise, we would not have it. The symptom is only an outer effect. We must go within to dissolve the mental cause. Itís like cutting down the weed and getting the root out" (8). Rather than viewing the sentiment as mystical there is a real basis for further research and understanding in its application in the field of mental health.


1) The Freud Page

2) Encyclopedia.Com

3) Notes on Neurotic Disorders

4) Pediatric On Call

5) Hypnotizability and traumatic experience

6) Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

7) Psychiatric Terminology

8) Hay, Louise L. Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illnesses and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them. Carlsbad: Hay House Inc., 1988

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