What it looks like | If you’ve ever known someone who has had all kinds of unexplainable aches and pains—headaches, back pain, intestinal disturbances, insomnia, depression, anxiety, frequent crying spells and more — for which there are no clear medical basis, the source of their ailments could well be somatization.
Some of the nicest people you will ever encounter may be individuals who somaticize when under stress. They internalize stress, which then converts to physical symptoms. This expression of stress is inward and passive. For the most part, it is most damaging to the individual who is experiencing the symptoms.
Unfortunately, somatization is often the most acceptable expression of stress among vocational people-helpers. It is a sign of your being deeply sacrificial on behalf of others. This expression may even bring much-needed empathy from others. But the attention is only a secondary gain. In the end, the cost of somatization can be physically, emotionally, relationally and financially devastating!
Stress affects everyone’s bodies — even if somaticizing is not the primary manifestation. As pointed out earlier, your body cannot distinguish the difference between external stressors and those that are from within. Your brain and therefore your body respond to both real and perceived stress in the same way.
When you encounter a potential threat—whether real or perceived—your brain sends messages along two separate pathways. The first message goes to the pituitary gland, which releases an adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone stimulates the adrenal glands. The second message is through the brainstem and the spinal cord, sending nerve impulses throughout the body, stimulating the cortex and the core.
The cortex releases various stress hormones, including cortisol and cortisone. Under normal conditions, both these hormones serve to fight pain and inflammation. But at higher levels sustained over time, these can have disastrous consequences on your health.
Finally, the cortex releases adrenalin and noradrenalin into your bloodstream. This stimulates your heart, raises your blood pressure, and prepares your body for the fight or flight emergency response.
The long-term effects include:
- Increased production of cholesterol and a decrease in the body’s ability to remove unhealthy cholesterol
- Increase in the deposits of plaque on the walls of the arteries and a narrowing of the capillaries and blood vessels, reducing the supply of blood to the heart
Answer the questions below and share insights with your spouse or a trusted friend.
- What are some of the physical manifestations of stress you have noticed on your health?
- What can you do to process the stress you are experiencing so it does not impact your health?
- What strategies have you found to be particularly helpful with addressing somatization in others?
While internalizing stress is acceptable—even celebrated—in people-helping vocations, it clearly can have long-term consequences. But there are two more options that are often used to express stress.