Friday Factoids Catch-Up: What Exactly Does Psychosomatic Mean?

When patients who are presenting to physicians for treatment hear the word “psychosomatic” they usually feel immediately discredited. This term is often followed by a referral to see a psychologist, which patients often do not choose to do.


First, the term psychosomatic means something different to physicians and most patients than it does to psychologists and mental health professionals. When physicians resort to telling patients they feel their condition is psychosomatic, it is often after much frustration and perceived treatment failures. Physicians note that these patients report very high levels of symptomatology, but testing and evaluations cannot identify concrete pathology. Physicians may also notice that patients seem to be reporting higher levels of symptoms than what seems to make sense in light of physical findings. The model that many physicians were trained in (Cartesian Model) creates a mindset that all medical conditions can be diagnosed with a methodical and logical approach. If this approach yields no solid support to reported symptoms, the problem is determined to be psychosomatic—or essentially not real. Laypeople (patients) typically identify the term psychosomatic in the same context. It can be a painful word for patients to hear and understand, and they often feel insulted by the resultant referral to see a psychologist.


Psychologists do not identify the term psychosomatic the same way as physicians and patients may define it. Many psychologists conceptualize health problems from a multi-faceted approach in which physical and biological conditions interact with their environment. “Somatic” research generally approaches physical conditions as inseparable from the mind. This under no circumstances means that psychologists think “every problem” is in the mind. In fact, it means that all systems in which a person functions interact with each other. Chronic pain is an example of a problem in which many systems interact. Emotions have been identified as one factor in decreasing pain tolerance, and biological changes can result from emotional state. So, feelings can make pain worse, and worsening pain increases emotional issues—and the problems can spiral.


Explaining to patients that seeing a psychologist is a part of treatment for medical conditions and not a result of practitioners deciding that patients are “faking” or “just emotional,” may help facilitate following up with recommendations. Patients who experience chronic illnesses often feel very misunderstood and disrespected, and more could be done to help patients understand that psychologists may be an instrumental part of their healthcare. This simple step could result in significant improvements in overall outcome for many conditions.


Rain Smith, MS
WKPIC Doctoral Intern


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