What is Psychosomatic?
The term ‘psychosomatic’ merges the two Greek words psykhē (mind) and sōma (body) and means mind and body related. A psychosomatic disorder is an illness which involves both mind and body.
The word was first recorded in the 19th century, most likely by German or English source. It is said that the foundation for psychosomatic movement, however, was laid 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece. In the fifth century BC, Hippocratic principles emphasized what are considered to be some of the basic tenets of psychosomatic medicine. Physicians who contributed to the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of around 60 early Ancient Greek medical works), such as Soranus of Ephesus (1st – 2nd c. AD) Galen (1st – 2nd c. AD), Aretaeus of Cappadocia (1st – 2nd or 4th c. AD) and Caelius Aurelianus (5th c. AD) described psychosomatic disorders in terms similar to those used by modern medicine.
A psychosomatic disorder is a physical disease that is caused, or worsened, by mental factors. For example, people with severe depression often stop taking care of their physical needs like eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene and become physically ill as a result. The term is also used when mental factors cause physical symptoms but where there is no detectable physical disease. For example, chest pain may be caused by stress and no physical disease can be found. Some physical diseases are prone to be made worse by mental factors such as stress and anxiety. At any given time, a person’s mental state can affect the degree of severity of a physical disease. Physical symptoms that are caused by mental factors are also called somatization or somatoform disorders. These symptoms are due to increased activity of nervous impulses sent from the brain to various parts of the body. There is a deep connection between the mind (beliefs, thoughts and emotions) and the different parts of the body and physical problems.
Psychosomatic disorders may appear to be purely physical but can originate in emotions that are unconscious or dissociated from consciousness. There are hundreds of illnesses and disorders that are purely psychosomatic or have a psychosomatic component, yet, despite the prevalence of these disorders, the medical community has been slow to embrace the importance of the mind/body connection.
In Western medicine, a philosophical dichotomy between mind and body existed long before philosopher René Descartes (17th century) claimed mind and body as separate entities.
This disconnect has directed how Western medicine evolved. Until recently, most Western medical practices have tended to treat mind and body separately. However, in the last few decades, an emphasis on the mind-body connection has developed. Doctors are becoming more aware of the psychological aspects of physical illness. The mind and body are now thought of as both being a part of a single continuum.
Today it is recognized that emotional factors play a role in the development of nearly all organic illnesses and that physical symptoms experienced by patients are related to many interdependent factors, including biological, psychological and environmental factors. Each person responds in a unique way to stress. Emotions affect one’s sensitivity to trauma, to irritating elements in the environment, susceptibility to infection, and ability to recover from the effects of illness.
With the development of current medicine, an increasing awareness has developed regarding the limitations of a compartmentalized approach to clinical practice that ignores the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit. The practice of psychosomatic medicine emphasizes the connection between mind and body and combines psychotherapies (directed at the mind) and relaxation techniques (directed at the body). Borrowing from Eastern traditions, which view body, mind and spirit as inseparable and deriving from one source, psychosomatic medicine utilizes activities such as meditation, yoga, qigong, breathing and visualization techniques to elicit awareness and relaxation responses.
In the past 60 years, psychosomatic medicine has provided a comprehensive framework of reference for several current issues of clinical medicine (the phenomenon of somatization, the increasing occurrence of mysterious symptoms, the demand for well-being and quality of life), including the recent dialogue with mind-body medicine.
Mind-body medicine shares the same holistic approach with psychosomatic medicine, which incorporates biological, psychological, and social factors; however, it is closely linked to that of alternative therapy. Unlike psychosomatic medicine, which has always been marginal to the lay public, mind-body therapies have been greatly effective popularizing key psychosomatic concepts that embrace care and education for physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
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