I had the honor of meeting a innovator in medical CARE on Sunday: David Clarke, MD, founder of the Psychophysiological Disorders Society. He is a gastroenterologist by trade who has developed expertise in diagnosing and compassionately treating what he calls “stress illness” — distressing symptoms and even physiological upsets — without any actual evidence of disease. Stress illness is an extreme version of the body expressing what is going on in the brain (upsetting thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, etc.) However, we are ALL familiar with the more common everyday versions of this same thing: sweaty palms and butterflies in stomach when worried, blushing when embarrassed, diarrhea or constipation before or after a stressful event. Although we don’t THINK of these things as the brain expressing itself through the body, that’s what it is.
Stress illness occurs for many reasons, but one of them is because other communications channels are blocked. Long before I got my professional education, my family taught me that people who bottle up their feelings — who won’t let themselves cry or be angry — are going to have those feelings leak out somewhere else. It’s a form of pent-up tension..
Dr. Clarke’s book (and audio CD) are on Amazon, entitled “They Can’t Find Anything Wrong“. You will find many case stories that illustrate (a) the power of stress to cause bodily dysfunction / symptoms; (b) the healing impact of simply noticing then acknowledging the contribution that stress is making to symptoms; and (c) the various sources of stress: current life predicaments; childhood trauma; PTSD; anxiety and depression. As Dr. Clarke said, some of his patients were “cured” as soon as he listened and ask questions until they SAW the connection — and accepted it. Others needed to learn more — read a book or two, look things up on the web. A third group needed to spend some time working with a good mental health professional to learn how to feel and release the pent-up stress, and then learn better ways to deal with the ups and downs of life.
There are several medical terms for this puzzle of distress without disease: medically-unexplained physical symptoms (or MUPS), somatization, and functional disorder are among the most widely used. They all describe cases in which the patient feels sick and is complaining of symptoms but there is no objective evidence of pathology . Often, an organ or system is not functioning normally, but there is no sign of any disease process. In other words the “doctors can’t find anything wrong!”
I wondered if there are any estimates for how frequently this occurs. Turns out this type of disorder accounts for a surprisingly large fraction of all visits to doctor’s office — estimated by various researchers as 25 to 60%.
Maybe we should think of it this way: Just like our facial expressions sometimes betray us even when we’re trying to keep a poker face — our bodies do the same thing. The body is just another channel the mind / spirit / brain can use to express itself — whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we want it to or not!