‘It’s all in your head’ – a common catchphrase for anything we suspect arises from our imaginations and isn’t easily proven.
It’s also the catchy title of a hard-hitting book by Irish consultant neurologist Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan, which is packed with stories from her 25-year career at the frontline of psychosomatic illness – from the blind woman with no medical basis for her lack of sight, to the young woman suffering repeated ‘epileptic’ seizures who, in fact, had no underlying brain disorder.
Dr O’Sullivan’s work makes an important contribution to our understanding of illness with an emotional and psychological basis. The symptoms experienced by her patients are not ‘less real’ than those who have neurological conditions.
Responses to emotional states
Of course, we all have simple everyday experiences of our bodies responding to our emotional states. Butterflies before an interview, palpitations on a date, brain fog during a presentation.
These experiences can run to minor illness like developing a sore throat just as that court appearance is scheduled to run, ’flu on holidays when our body knows it’s allowed to crash, or more persistent challenges like ulcers, raised blood pressure or chronic pain.
We are now, mostly, willing to accept that lifestyle, nutrition and stress impact on our general health and wellbeing.
So, is it so hard for us to imagine that serious or unexplained illnesses might also be linked to our psychological and emotional wellbeing? In one of his short stories (aptly called A Painful Case), Joyce wrote that the protagonist, Mr Duffy, “lived a short distance from his body”.
In professional life, we can all drift out of contact with our bodies, with our emotional and psychological health – and perhaps more treacherously, with the interrelatedness of the two.
Call to action
As you prepare for the onslaught of autumn, your call to action is to pay attention to your internal experiences as much as to the pull of the external. We need to pay attention to all aspects of our selves – body, mind and feelings.
Make room in your schedule for all three, and diary them as commitments.
Not sure where to start? Talk therapy is the optimal place to integrate the less conscious aspects of the self. It offers a safe, professional space in which to unravel who you are in the world and explore how to be fully alive – and well – in every sense of the word.