WHEN THE DOCTOR TELLS YOU IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Updated: Jul 28, 2019
You’ve had all the tests, and they’ve come up clear.
There seems to be no medical explanation for the debilitating physical symptoms you’ve been suffering with for months. Then the doctor gently suggests that they may have a psychological cause. She offers antidepressants or counselling.
You’re furious, and feel insulted.
Your symptoms are real; you’re not making it up and you’re not crazy. Why is the doctor giving up on you? You demand more tests, but the answer is no.
There is still a great deal of social stigma and discrimination attached to mental health. We may not want to believe that our brains are creating our physical symptoms but even if this is the case, it doesn’t make those symptoms less real. It may be “in your head”, but your head is a part of your body. The brain is an organ, connected to the rest of the body through the nerves and endocrine system. As a response to fear our hands shake, our heart rate increases and we sweat; if we’re sad, water leaks out of our eyes. We blush when embarrassed. These things are easy to understand, but the fact is that even conditions such as blindness, paralysis and seizures can sometimes have a psychological cause. We know that pain is generated in the brain, but find it hard to accept that chronic, severe pain could have an emotional origin.
It’s even harder to believe that hypnosis could help.
It’s interesting to consider the placebo effect, and its lesser known evil twin—the nocebo effect. Studies have shown that a placebo can have a positive effect even when the patient knows it’s a placebo, and if you read all the possible side effects of your medication you’re very likely to get quite a few of them.
A few years ago I was offered a new medication. Previous ones had caused some nasty side effects, but the doctor explained that this one was much easier on the body and I shouldn’t have any problems. There was just one thing, though. If I got a rash it could be life-threatening, and I must discontinue the medication and call him immediately.
Of course I immediately went home and did what anyone would do. I Googled. I discovered that he was talking about Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, or the even more horrific Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis. (Do not Google this. You can never unsee it). I’m quite prone to mild skin rashes, especially in hot weather, and the very next morning I woke up with an angry rash on my neck.
I was terrified.
I called the hospital as advised, and five minutes later the consultant called me back. This is a doctor with a three month waiting list! When do I ever get to speak to him on the phone? Was I going to die? I went back to the hospital and was told that this was not The Rash, but the damage was done. I couldn’t take that medication; the fear of the side effects caused them to manifest physically.
The rash was real, though. I didn’t imagine it: it was as real as chickenpox or measles. But after reassurance from my doctor, it was gone by the next day. My subconscious simply would not allow me to ingest something that had even a small chance of making my skin fall off.
It was psychosomatic: all in my head.
We’re good at suppressing our emotions. If you’ve buried a trauma, suffered a bereavement everyone expects you to have got over by now, your relationship is abusive or your job makes you miserable but you can’t quit, it can play havoc with your body. If you Google your headaches you may end up convinced you have a brain tumour. You're human, this stuff is normal. If you bottle it up, expect it to come out in unexpected ways.
When it comes to conditions such as IBS, allergies, pain, chronic headaches and migraines, a hypnotist may be the very last thing you consider. It’s always best to get checked out by a doctor first; even psychosomatic symptoms can have an underlying medical cause, so always err on the side of caution.
But when the doctor tells you it’s in your mind, hypnosis may be a logical next step.