Psychosomatic Illness Interview

Posted on July 10th, 2010

An interview with Ivan Staroversky by Will Sacks from about psychosomatic illness.

1. What’s the difference between somatic and psychosomatic medicine?

Somatic medicine involves the cells of the body and is based on physical and biological aspects of the problem. The somatic approach is the traditional approach of the western medicine and it usually deals with the symptoms of the problem. For example, a person comes to see a doctor and describes his/her symptoms. The doctors gives a drug prescription to get rid of the symptoms.

Psychosomatic means that a physical condition is caused or greatly influenced by psychological factors. The psychosomatic approach to health views illness as a form of communication between the conscious and the unconscious mind through the body. Illness is a person’s way of adapting to the environment. It is a message that communicates a need for change. However, very few people interpret their illness as a form of communication or symptom of deeper problems. The most common solution is to get rid of the pain.

Examples of psychosomatic illness

  • Illness is a legitimate way to avoiding something unpleasant. Illness can be a subconscious mechanism of defense. There are many situations that people would rather avoid rather than deal with.

  • Love and attention. When people get sick, they get attention, love and warmth from family members or friends.

  • Purpose crisis. There is a point in time when people begin to ask the question - What is the purpose of my life? Unable to answer this question, some people turn their illness into their purpose in life. Everything begins to revolve around it.

2. Can you tell your own story with psychosomatic illness?

At the age of 10 years old, I got infected with the Mumps virus. It was summer and all of my friends were outside playing and having fun. I had a strong desire to cure my illness and go play with my friends.

When I asked my mother for an advice, she told me to think of the virus that I had as an intruder or a “bad guys” inside my body and that I must use my own army to defeat the “bad guys”. Without any doubts, strong desire and full belief in the story, I made a firm decision to beat the bad guys inside my body. My method was simple - lie down and visualize a huge battlefield between the good army and the bad army. After intense visualization I got up and just continued my usual day. The next day the mumps symptoms began to disappear rappidly without any complications.

At the age of 20, I had a skin problem where red spots were appearing on my chest and my neck. It was mostly a cosmetic problem that brought psychological and emotional discomfort into my life. The skin problem had a strong correlation with my mood and body temperature. Unable to solve the problem through traditional cosmetic solutions, I examined the problem from a psychosomatic perspective. After intensive year of personal development, I was able to overcome some of the key psychological issues that I had back at the time. As a result, the skin problem disappeared forever.

These are just a few personal examples from my life. The main lesson that I have learned from these experience is that you have the power to change yourself.

3. What did you own experience teach you about the western “Somatic” approach to medicine?

Western approach to medicine has a tunnel vision. People are examined as cases with symptoms. Very few doctors spend their time really understanding the person as a whole. The entire system is based on profit rather than true health care. People are processed as case numbers who will consume drugs and deduct money from the insurance companies.

Western medicine doctors are very important and knowledgeable and can be crucial in life. However, most doctors can help but not cure the patient. By no means do I say that the western medicine is bad. I think that western medicine is one of the best in the world when it comes to emergencies and surgery. I just think that the healthcare system has some major flaws, which are not helping people and in some cases cause more problems than solutions.

4. What percentage of illness in Western society do you think is psychosomatic in nature?

Based on my experience and research I would say that about 85% of all health problems are psychosomatic. I grew up in a family of doctors and I have seen many cases. Most people have health problems that are caused or influenced by psychological problems.

Three main causes of illness1:

Trauma - often serious and body-altering physical injury. For example, removal of a limb or a broken rib.

Toxicity - chemical disturbance which causes the nervous system to send “bad” signals to the cells and the tissue. The sources of intoxication can include GMO, various food additives, pollution, radiation, beauty products, drugs and other sources.

Thoughts - accurate perception encourages success and misperception threatens survival. It is important to remember that cells, tissue and organs of the body do not question the information that is sent to them from the nervous system. Thus, we respond to life-affirming perceptions or self-destructive misperceptions every day. Our perception influences our fate. Our thoughts have the power to change our body chemistry. Some thoughts cause stress and some thoughts cause relaxation and self-rehabilitation.

5. Why is psychosomatic illness so misunderstood and ignored in our society?

I think that it is important to look back at our history. There was a point in time when the church had all the answers to all the questions. Everything was based on what the Bible said. However from monotheism we moved to reformation and scientific materialism where the universe and the human body was looked at as a machine. These were the time of Isaac Newton and mathematics. The next phase of our evolution was deism where there was balance between God and nature.

Scientific materialism began to shift attention away from God when Charles Darwin published his famous work - The Origin of Species. Our interpretation of reality shifted to natural selection, random mutation and the survival of the fittest. We then progressed to the DNA era where we have become the victims of our genes. Our fate was at the mercy of our genetic predisposition. Next came the human genome project which found that we have 23,000 genes which make us who we are. The genome project is an amazing opportunity for capitalists and the pharmaceutical companies to make huge profits. Think about, if the pharmaceutical companies can patent the technology to alter genes then they become in control of fixing and creating human bodies.

During the evolution of medicine many high ranking educational, medical and government institutions were formed. The foundation of these institutions was based on the material world (physiology, biology and genes). There was no room for psychosomatic approaches to health problems. However, we are now shifting towards holism where science considers both the body and the mind. Human beings are viewed as something greater than just a collection of organized cells. Unfortunately holism faces great resistance from well established institutions which were based on the material world. Psychosomatic approach does not make profit for the pharmaceutical companies and it states drugs are not the answer to all health problems.

Fixing hardware that runs bad software can be effective in a short-term but very inefficient in a long-term

6. How can healthcare practitioners diagnose psychosomatic illness?

I think that the first step is to look at the person as a whole human being and not just his/her symptoms. It is important to examine the lifestyle, family history, social circle, past, present and the future. I am not saying that we have to go into every single detail about their life, but we should at least give each person a chance to explain the situation.

There is also a placebo test that a health care practitioner can do to test for a psychosomatic illness. Take out some sugar pills and put them into small glass bottle which will look like a remedy bottle. Explain to your patient that this is one of the most powerful remedies there is and that they should follow the instructions precisely. Tell them that the problem should go away in about a week. See what happens to them in a week. If their problem is solved, then it was probably a psychosomatic illness. If their problem remains the same, then you probably did not convince them well enough or the problem is somatic. Some recent research has shown that actual cures of diagnosed problems have occurred in this manner also.

7. What are the best ways to treat psychosomatic illness?

Think outside the box and examine people holistically. Ask questions and try to understand the problem. A good healthcare practitioner will help a person to understand the meaning of the illness so that it can be dealt with now and avoided in the future. A person cannot wake up in the morning and become ill for no reason. There is always something that the person did or did not do that caused the problem.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the meaning of my illness?
  • What is the problem trying to communicate?
  • What can be changed ?
  • What is the secondary gain from my illness?

One of the techniques that can be used when working with psychosomatic illness is to ask the person to imagine his/her problem. See if he/she can give that problem color, shape or movement. If the problem would look like something, what would it look like? Place it in a chair in front of you and ask the following questions: What is it that you want to communicate to me? What is the point of my problem? Listen to yourself without any judgement and notice first thing that comes to your mind. What is it trying to communicate to you? Do not censor your answers.

Sometimes when I ask my clients to imagine their problem (as if it would look like something or someone) and place in the empty chair beside them, they see one of their family members. After looking at the person for a few minutes, they confess that this is a source of stress because there is an unresolved conflict with that person.

8. How would our world be different if psychosomatic illness was better understood by patients and their health-care practitioners?

I think that if our society would take the next step in conscious evolution and conscious awareness, people would focus more on progress and cooperation rather than destruction and competition. People would become more aware about their lifestyle and how much their thoughts influence their health. If adults would become more conscious about what they say to kids, we would have to deal less with negative parental programming. Most of the negative programming happens before the age of six. Usually by that age, beliefs, values, attitude, outlook on life and life scenario are programmed by family members and significant others. If we could give our children the right programs for their mind, they would have a much better future.

Unfortunately we are still operating on principles such as survival of the fittest and profit making. It will take time but we have the power to change ourselves and make the next step in conscious evolution.

  1. Lipton, B. H., & Bhaerman, S. (2010). Spontaneous evolution: our positive future (and a way to get there from here) (3rd ed.). Carlsbad, Calif.: Hay House. 

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