It Is All in Your Head

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The last time I went to my gastroenterologist, I sought his long-term prognosis regarding my condition. He assured me that my stomach discomfort was not due to a serious disease and it will tend to go away as I got older. I feel that way now that I am older and I appreciate his attempt to help me heal by instilling a positive mental attitude in me. This approach did, in fact, help the process of healing for me. Had he told me otherwise, I believe my symptoms would most likely have gotten worse. This encounter reminds me also of the story of some students who did not do their homework and wanted to get the class cancelled. They thought of a plot that involved telling their teacher how sick he looked. The suggestion “Your face looks pale and you seem to have a cold” was repeated by the students. After a short period of resistance, the teacher finally succumbed to the negativity, allowed himself to feel sick, and cancelled the class. The moral of this story is that there is a remarkable relationship between our mental perception and our bodily reaction to it. That is the central theme of It Is All in Your Head, a newly published book by Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan, a research neurologist from the UK.

I came across this book by luck as I was scrolling down the shelf of the new books in our local library. I could not resist the title It Is All in Your Head. “I wish it was,” I whispered to myself. I checked the book out and started reading it. Even though the medical terminology was mind-boggling, I enjoyed reading it. In this book, the author shares her long-term experience with some of her patients who thought they were suffering from serious diseases. Dr. O’Sullivan, however, argues how the result of medical tests showed they had no serious disease but only illness. She believes there is a difference between a disease and an illness. A disease originates from our body, mainly out of our control, whereas an illness is a product of our mind and how we respond to emotional situations, especially more extreme emotional situations. 

As a prominent neurologist, Dr. O’Sullivan believes that medicine is not a one hundred percent positive science; it is subject to interpretation and judgment just like other scientific fields. Although doctors primarily rely on medical tests to diagnose a disease, such tests, and the doctors’ interpretation of them, may not be perfectly accurate. There is a subjective element in medicine that necessitates obtaining the opinions of multiple physicians or delving into the state of the patient’s mind.  

It is very possible that sometimes, as Dr. O’Sullivan argues, the symptoms of a disease may disappear for reasons still unknown to the medical profession. Although, some people erroneously call such instances miracles or see them as the result of praying. The author, however, asserts that this unexplained disappearance of symptoms is because what the patient believes to be a disease is not actually a disease; it is an illness. Illness, she explains, determines how humans respond to a disease. The nature of such responses depends on the attitude of the patient, which in turn, is dependent upon many factors, including how the patient handles unexpected incidences and unfortunate events. This is why developing positive attitudes is so helpful; these attitudes produce a placebo effect.

According to Dr. O’Sullivan, human life is defined by more than medical tests and files, and a patient is defined by more than just a series of clinical examinations. A human being is like a sophisticated computer; the body is the hardware and the mind is its operating software that controls its functionality. When we have a disease, we desperately want to get better. Because of our state of mind, we seek treatments that we think will help us to get better and we often do, especially if we trust our doctor and believe in his or her healing aptitude. We may sometimes get better by the power of our mind not medicine, or by the power of positive thinking and the strength of our positive attitudes; this can explain the non-physical causes of what we think is a disease to begin with.

The hardest thing, Dr. O’Sullivan explains, is to tell a patient that he is not suffering from what he believes is a disease. It may be a psychological problem that is, in fact, rooted in his mind.  Patients, however, seem to be reluctant to accept this kind of a diagnosis because of the stigma attached to being psychologically ill. It is discomforting for them and sounds even accusatory because they may be thought to be making things up. Physical symptoms with psychological causes may not be unique to certain individuals; they may happen to all of us to varying degrees.

The bodily reactions to emotional incidences, such as fear, anxiety, stress, failure, rejection, are what Dr. O’Sullivan calls psychosomatic. Psychosomatic reactions at an ordinary level are normal and do not indicate any illness. However, if psychosomatic reactions are severe, as is the case for some people, they result in illness that often impairs or alters somatic functions. Instilling positive mental attitudes is an effective way to help these patients with the process of healing. Helping a patient to develop positive attitudes is quite helpful; however, many doctors overlook this simply because they do not either believe in the healing power of positive thinking, or they simply have not mastered the art of doing so.

People react or behave according to what they think. If, for instance, they see a tragic story on TV, they cry. The face may change color in reaction to fear, anger, or embracement. Somatic reactions to such encounters are usually normal and are well understood and studied by doctors. However, these reactions turn to illness if they are extraordinary. Some people’s reactions to emotional encounters are so extreme that they may turn into physical disease with no medical explanations. Dr. O’Sullivan believes that ruling out a disease does not mean that the patient does not have an illness. Consequently, knowing this may change the way the patient should be treated, often not by a general medical practitioner, but by a specialist like a psychiatrist or a psychologist.

In summary, if you or a loved one is constantly complaining about having a disease and doctors have offered no diagnosis after performing numerous diagnostic tests or treatments and no physical causes for your disease are found, reading this book can be a helpful resource for understanding yourself. I also add that obtaining information about your medical condition from Internet sources that are so popular nowadays may be counterproductive because I believe medical information must be interpreted by experts, not by medically undereducated individuals, and no two bodies react to the same symptoms in the same way.

Relax; it is comforting to know that often It Is All in Your Head!

 Posted simultaneously on OpEd News 



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4 comments

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said Saïd Amin (@said) Pinned comment
"The hardest thing, Dr. O’Sullivan explains, is to tell a patient that he is not suffering from what he believes is a disease. It may be a psychological problem that is, in fact, rooted in his mind."

I am literally in the midst of dealing with such a situation. My 87 year-old father is convinced, and I mean convinced that he has cancer. We have done blood work, scans, repeatedly...as in, every two or three weeks (or so it feels like), but nope...he's still convinced that he's terminally ill and that more tests are needed. Alas, I don't fight it and just go with the flow, providing him the space to vent/complain about his condition and worries. Telling him that he's wrong (based on test results) is futile and usually only aggravates our dynamic, so instead, I keep it positive and celebrate all that we have to be grateful for...like, this moment.
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varjavand varjavand (@varjavand) replied to Saïd Amin (@said) Pinned comment
I hope there is nothing seriously wrong with your father. I wish him well and a long happy and worry-free life.
That is not probably a problem that arises at older ages. All the cases, Dr. Sullivan discusses in his book are related to younger individuals who think they have physical disease while the test results show otherwise. Reading this book is helpful to manage such cases and to discern the unexplainable phenomena that medical science has yet to uncover and more importantly to understand the relationship between body and mind.
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said Saïd Amin (@said) replied to varjavand (@varjavand) Pinned comment
Mersi for the concern and well-wishes Varjavand-jaan.

Sounds like an informative book that I should read. Thanks for the heads-up.
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varjavand varjavand (@varjavand) Pinned comment
The bodily reactions to emotional incidences, such as fear, anxiety, stress, failure, rejection, are normal and do not indicate any illness. However, such reactions are severe, they result in illness that often impairs or alters somatic functions. Instilling positive mental attitudes is an effective mechanism to help these patients with the process of healing. Helping a patient to develop positive attitudes is quite helpful; however, many doctors overlook this simply because they do not either believe in the healing power of positive thinking, or they simply have not mastered the art of doing so.
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