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Physical Suffering from Emotional Distress

Did you know that when you have emotional stress or turmoil in your life that your body will sometimes express that angst in the form of physical symptoms? It's a concept known in psychology as "psychosomatic stress". Breaking down the word we have "psych" as in psychology or the study of the mind (technically psychology is the study fo the spirit, but that's not the point here). The second half of the word is "soma" which mean body. Thus psycho-somatic stress basically means mind-body stress.

Technical terms aside, let's take a look at what psychosomatic stress actually is. In essence it's a way for your body to get your attention. Think of it  like this... if you ignore the emotional angst you're experiencing your body may decide to up the ante by causing you not only emotional stress  but physical stress as well. Continue to ignore your body and the  symptoms may very well get worse until the point where you can no longer ignore them.

Often our society looks differently at emotional stress and issues than it does at physical symptoms. A person who is emotionally wraught with anxiety, tension, and burnout is often thought to be weak-willed, while a person with a physical ailment is understood and offered compassion. It's this reason that your body may decide to turn your emotional issue into a physical one; because that's what it may take in order to get away from the problem.

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Closeup of a man who appears emotionally exhausted and dejected
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Let's consider an example. A young man named Dave has a job in the hectic world of corporate sales. He's recently out of college and looking to get his career off to a good start. However he's finding it harder than he anticipated it would be. While still in school he dreamt about a rewarding  job, having appreciative colleagues, earning a handsome paycheck, and a life of success and confidence. Yet now, he's fetching coffee and getting yelled at for doing it wrong. He shows up early and stays late trying to make a good impression, but nobody notices him. His more experienced colleagues mock his enthusiasm or simply ignore his very presence.

Just when he wished he would be ignored however, his boss calls him into her office and questions his every move. She wants to know why he took a 32 minute lunch break when he knows full well that lunch is 30 minutes and not a minute more. She looks genuinely confused as to why he showed compassion to a low-income customer instead of strictly trying to make a sale. Then when he encountered an angry customer who he apologized to  and offered to help out, she threatened to fire him for going above and beyond the role of his job.

When the weekend roles around Dave is feeling good. He spends some time with  friends laughing and having fun. On Sunday he spends some time relaxing, reading a book and watching a movie. As Sunday evening roles around however, Dave begins to think about tomorrow morning and how he wishes he didn't have to go to work. Reliving the past week which was no different than the last several months, he wonders what he ever did to deserve being treated the way he has been. It's the same line of thought he's had every day before and after work, on his lunch break, at night trying to fall asleep, driving, and just about anytime he's not actually  at work.

His friends and family are willing to listen to him as he vents, but then they tell him to be grateful that he has a job, to appreciate that he has a paycheck and to think of all the unemployed people out there. They remind him that he's fresh out of school and needs to work his way up the corporate ladder. Other people he talks to are more blunt telling him to "suck it  up" and question what the big deal is.

Dave wishes he could take a break; just a little time off to recouperate, to rejuvinate his soul. But it's Sunday night and there's no time for that. Soon he'll be waking up and getting ready for the start of yet another week. Dave thought about calling in and saying that he needs a "mental health day" and just being honest about how he feels. But then he imagines his co-workers all gathered around laughing at him and how he'd lose what little respect they presently have for him. He realizes he has no choice. Tomorrow he'll have to go to work just like every other day.

When his alarm clock goes off on Monday morning, Dave rolls over dejected and defeated  only 5 seconds into the new day. As he starts to wake up he realizes he has a bit of a stomachache. He showers and has breakfast cluching his  stomach periodically as the pain gets worse. Putting on his work clothes he thinks back to what he ate yesterday wondering if he ate anything bad. As the morning wears on the pain in his stomach gets worse.  

He suspects he may be getting sick and decides that he better call out of work. Dave feels relieved when he gets his boss's voicemail and realizes he won't have to explain himself to her directly. Dave takes off his jacket and sits down. Now his attention moves from getting to work on time to how his stomach is feeling. Dave watches TV for an hour and then starts to read the book he was enjoying the day before. Before he realizes it, it's 1:00 in the afternoon and he's feeling much better. Dave heads out to run some errands and figures that whatever bug he had must be gone.

Monday evening back at home, he starts thinking and stressing about work  again. He appreciates the fact that he had a day off, but can't believe how fast it went and that he's right back to where he was on Sunday  night, dreading the next morning.

What Dave is experiencing here is psychosomatic stress. Emotionally he can't handle the work environment that he's forcing himself to deal with day in and day out. Dave knows that he can't stay at that job, nor can he leave. He's stuck there and every moment of his life becomes consumed with the torture of either working or thinking about working. He also  realizes that taking a break, taking a vacation to clear his mind and  rejuvinate his spirit is not an option either.

That's when his body comes up with another alternative. Plagued with a stomach ailment, Dave finally has a "legitimate reason" that others will accept and that allows him to take a day off. His body accomplished what it  set out to do and the odds are pretty good that on Tuesday morning if  not Monday night those stomach pains will return. Until Dave addresses  the issue itself (his job environment) and does something about it, his stomach will never settle. If he pushes through the stomach aches, he may eventually find himself with a stomach ulcer.

Hopefully  we can learn from Dave's experience. Listen to your body and don't force it to produce physical symptoms. Respond to the emotional and  mental symptoms by dealing with the stress. It may be tough now, but over time it'll only get harder. Don't just ignore it or push past it. If you do, you run the risk of having more severe physical symptoms  developing. Dave may be able to push past his stomach pains for awhile and force himself to return to work, but when that pain turns into an ulcer and he's hospitalized, the choice will no longer be his to make.

Picture your body talking to you. The emotional stress is a casual conversation where your body is trying to alert you to something, warning you that you need to deal with something before it gets worse. If you put things off and you start to develop physical symptoms it's like your body raising its voice and telling you firmly that you need to listen. Finally if you continue to ignore your body it starts to scream, and your body screaming on the inside just might cause you to scream on the outside as well.

Listen to your body and you'll be happier and healthier. Listen to your body and you'll be glad you did.

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