Is Fibromyalgia a ‘Psychosomatic’ Disorder?
” Trust one who has gone through it”, Virgil
Writing those words is psychosomatic, in fact, even thinking about the title makes me feel uncomfortable! Who wants to be labeled as one whose pain is thought to be “JUST in your head” implying it is not real? But, before we go off into a tailspin about that specific demeaning-sounding word, I should begin by saying what I now believe psychosomatic to mean. It certainly does not suggest that those of us with fibromyalgia are hysterics who malinger just to get attention.
But, maybe, just maybe, our pain is caused by emotions that are unconsciously deep-seated, trapped in past trauma, and ARE in our head (brain). Such emotions as anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, rage, and others can be kept in a closed segment of our minds without taking them out to examine and work with consciously. After all, pain perceptions come from our body’s nociceptors, funneled up to the brain. Psychosomatic does not mean the pain is not real, but that pain comes from the brain in the stored memories.
Being female, a person of color, economically disadvantaged, of marginalized races or ethnic groups, or a sexual orientation that differs from the majority, is disabled, or anyone who has been victimized/abused in some way, or has been taught to care for others to the exclusion of themselves can usually result in a plethora of thoughts and feelings that eventually evoke painful body experiences. Other types of pain, like that from surgery or an accident, also become stored in our brains inciting fear upon recall.
What if those thoughts of emotional or physical trauma become lodged in our brain (the amygdala wherein lies the ‘flight or fight’ tendency) and are expressed as pain in various parts of our bodies? That is what I mean by psychosomatic. Our brain has stored those unhappy emotions and feelings and they may manifest themselves through painful bodily sensations. The brain then takes those stored unpleasant memories in the unconscious part of the brain and when stress or excitement occurs, activates the nervous system to take flight or fight because there is perceived danger!
As Dr.Peter Levine suggests in his book Waking the Tiger Healing Trauma there is another aspect to all this, that is freezing, that aspect within the nervous system that freezes these emotions. I think this can only occur in the highly sensitive person because not all people who have experienced sexism, racism, classism, or other kinds of abuse/bias/prejudice or physical trauma develop fibromyalgia. This highly sensitive/overly empathetic person can be described as having ’emotional intelligence’.
Read: The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee, particularly Chapter 10, (which is a phenomenal book by the way). The Blakeslee duo cites Dr. Hugo Critchley whose research found that people with greater empathy have thicker gray matter in the right frontal lobe (the insula) of the brain. My question would be: is this because of lifelong highly empathetic tendencies from which the thickness evolved as a result of early socialization or was the person born that way and if so, why more so with women? The authors suggest that it is because of the higher level of testosterone in men which makes them less empathetic. Once again, in my search for answers, I am left in a quandary. Is it nature or nurture or both?
What if the pain from the unconscious part of the brain expresses itself with tension in a particular body part and that area becomes somewhat oxygen-deprived, causing pain? This is the view of Dr. John E. Sarno in his 2006 book The Divided Mind The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders in which he discusses fibromyalgia is somewhat lengthy excerpts. If he is correct (and I am certainly not sure about this), then we have reason to believe that we have been over-medicalized by the health care system.
How do we get to those unconscious thoughts and rid ourselves of pain and are they truly frozen? Are these emotions actually the root cause of our pain? Dr. Sarno has specific ideas about this. His view is that only through mind-body medicine can we begin to heal. I urge readers to find blogs or books about this and other branches of psychotherapy, like somatic psychology and in particular other issues related to brain/mind/body such as brain mapping and neuroplasticity.
The more that we fibro sufferers learn and unlearn the more we can help one another understand the mysteries of this syndrome. Personally the more I read the less sure I am about anything, but slowly some insights are evolving, although at a very basic level of understanding! It is easy to remain a skeptic but we must continue our search for new approaches to dealing with pain. But all I read seems to underscore that constant awareness through mindfulness meditation, and deep diaphragmatic breathing in a disciplined way is a primary route to healing.
All the scientists whose work I read seem to concur. I don’t know if fibromyalgia is psychosomatic or not, but it deserves our attention, and if people suggest to us “it’s just in your head”, we can say “yes, it is, because our minds and brains are so highly intelligent”
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