by Claire Spinka, M.A.
In psychology and the medical community, we call the phenomenon of psychological distress manifesting into physical pain, somatization (APA, 2022). It is likely that at one time or another in our lives, we have experienced somatization. For example, the feeling of nausea before performing in a play. A headache after a long day of work. Alternatively, tight muscles in your jaw can lead to teeth grinding in your sleep. People often go to medical doctors to seek treatment for their somatic symptoms. Approximately 16-34% of patients have these unexplained symptoms in primary care settings. Making somatization one of the most under-recognized and under-treated mental health concerns (Cariello et al., 2020).
Risk factors for somatization, particularly somatization of the gut (as seen in IBS), are anxiety, life stressors, chronic illness, poor emotional support, and increased age. A study performed by Bennett and colleagues found that 98% of people who experience IBS symptoms have chronic stress in role change, illness, employment, marital, finances, and housing (Bennett et al., 1998).
One cannot look at the experience of somatization without investigating the influence of culture. Humans are cultural beings. How we navigate life is heavily indoctrinated with messages we have learned about our culture, beginning in utero. For example, in somatic research, there have been diverse reports of the intensity, frequency, and duration of symptoms based on culture (Schacter, 2021). To make sense of the disparity, one must be aware of how different cultures speak about their symptoms. Much of the Spanish language includes the intersection of psychological and bodily sensations (Escovar et al., 2018). In English, there is far more separation between mind and body distress or pain.
So, what are effective treatments for somatization? In general, having a collaborative treatment team, which may include a mental health professional, is ideal. Suppose you are experiencing somatization and are interested in therapy. In that case, joining a chronic pain group is a great way to meet a community of others who can relate to the experience of pain. A common misconception about somatization is that the pain is not real. This is entirely false. Pain is pain; you deserve not to feel invalidated for your experiences.
In therapy, clients can work with a mental health professional to create effective coping skills to manage and hopefully decrease pain symptoms. Whether in a group therapy context or individual therapy, the therapist may encourage you to think back to how your parents or other notable caregivers in your past dealt with pain. Were they punitive? Anxious? Dismissive? As I mentioned previously, humans are cultural beings, and how we express pain is often mirrored by what we see or what is appropriate in our early childhood.
You do not have to be alone in your experience of pain. Pain can be isolating and remove you from your social supports. After reading this, if you believe you are experiencing somatic symptoms that alter your functioning in the essential areas of your life (occupationally, socially, academically, etc.). Please do not hesitate to reach out to Interaction Dynamics. At Interaction Dynamics, we host a chronic pain group and competent therapists who can help navigate you through this difficult time.
If you are interested in a chronic pain group, please email Dr. Rachel Goldfarb at firstname.lastname@example.org. If interested in individual therapy, please email Dr. Amanda Gerber at email@example.com.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Apa Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved March 29, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/somatization
Bennett, E. J., Piesse, C., Palmer, K., Badcock, C. A., Tennant, C. C., & Kellow, J. E. (1998). Functional gastrointestinal disorders: psychological, social, and somatic features. Gut, 42(3), 414-420.
Cariello AN, Perrin PB, Morlett- Paredes A. Influence of resilience on the relations among acculturative stress, somatization, and anxiety in latinx immigrants. Brain Behav. 2020;10:e01863. https://doi. org/10.1002/brb3.1863
Escovar, E. L., Craske, M., Roy-Byrne, P., Stein, M. B., Sullivan, G., Sherbourne, C. D., ... & Chavira, D. A. (2018). Cultural influences on mental health symptoms in a primary care sample of Latinx patients. Journal of anxiety disorders, 55, 39-47.
Schacter, H. L. (2021). Effects of peer victimization on child and adolescent physical health. Pediatrics, 147(1).