Watching Molly do cartwheels the other day, I discovered a new psychiatric syndrome: somatopsychosis. It’s a very rare condition and she may be the only sufferer largely due to her terrible parent: me.
Most of us are aware of the miraculous power of our minds over our bodies and the inextricable links between psychological problems and physical problems. At the most basic, feeling physically unwell can make us feel sad about not being able to do things we wanted to do, or anxious that we may have a serious or life-threatening illness. Being a medical student was the worst. Reading lists of symptoms of rare neurological diseases was bound to bring on symptoms of blurred vision, pins and needles and lethargy such that a self-diagnosed brain tumour became a convincing reality. Conversely, when we experience bereavement, adversity or tragedy, we often feel it physically as “heartache” or “headache” or “tiredness” and “sleeplessness”. The term “psychosomatic” is basically a fancy way of saying bodily (somatic) symptoms for which there is a psychological (psycho) basis.
Children are no different and due to their immature abilities to identify and express emotions, their propensity to cite psychological problems as physical ones are more frequent. For children, who may have less understanding that psychological problems stem from the head, the gut is the most frequent organ assigned to physical problems. Children who are worried at school may experience genuine stomach aches or constipation which miraculously remit at the weekends and on holidays. For teenagers and adults, the neurological often (but not always) begins to preside with headaches and migraines becoming more prevalent presentations of psychosomatic symptoms.
Psychosomatic symptoms more commonly arise in children who are less able to understand, identify and report their feelings and emotions. Therefore younger children, and children with learning difficulties and or autistic spectrum disorders are more vulnerable. It may also occur in children where reporting feelings and emotions is not possible, discouraged or seen as a sign of weakness or failure. Often children may have experienced past or current physical problems and therefore have a good understanding of how to solicit help or get their needs met for physical problems. Often parents can contribute to symptoms by their own fears and anxieties about their child’s physical health. This is particularly so if the child has a long standing medical condition or has been unwell in the past. Doctors and health professionals can add their own anxieties “of missing a rare disorder” into the mix with repeated investigations and suggested treatments to help uncover and treat an underlying biological basis to problems, and neglect to consider that the underlying problems may be psychological.
If that is the long established thinking on psychosomatic symptoms, what then is my new disorder of “somatopsychosis”? Well, exactly the reverse: psychological symptoms caused by physical ones. This sounds highly unusual, and indeed, Molly is the only recognised case report of this pathological condition that I have just made up. Here is how it works:
Some doctors, like myself (I hope this is the case and I am not an unusually hard-hearted anomaly), have a skewed sense of pain severity due to our dealings with pain at the very severe end. At times it can border on the down-right unsympathetic: when my husband complains of woozy head and sniffles, it’s most definitely man-flu of no significance and he should take Lemsip, go to bed and quit complaining. When an adult patient complains of pain from a blood test, I sometimes mentally think “Come on – it’s a skin prick – I’ve just sewn someone’s entire arm back on!” and don’t let me get started on people that wince in extreme agony from having a blood pressure taken. I am of course professional, kind and sympathetic to my patients, but I am also human, so I hope you will forgive the occasional internal eye-roll at such “wimpish” behaviour.
Unfortunately for my children, professionalism doesn’t wholly apply at home and although broken legs, cuts that are likely to leave scars and high temperatures are met with the usual heightened maternal anxiety (including vivid nightmares of misaligned bones or fractures that disturb the bone growth plates that only people of medical training contemplate) I admit to a general propensity to a lack of sympathy to minor physical pain. As such poor Molly and D have learnt that a grazed knee will earn a dusting off, a quick wound wash, a hug and a wipe of the tears, but then an expectation that the episode is now over and they are to carry on playing. A bumped knee will unlikely earn more than an “Oh dear, you’ll get a nasty bruise” or sometimes, I admit to even worse: “Well, that’s what you get for charging around without looking where you are going.”
As a child psychiatrist on the other hand, identifying and expressing feelings and emotions are a different kettle of fish. From a young age, both children have been encouraged to talk to me about their internal lives, what has worried them at school and all angles are thoroughly investigated and talked through with utmost attention.
It appears that this table-turning of the usual scenario where parents pay immense attention to physical pain and tend to access less of their children’s internal worlds can have its own unhealthy consequences. Here’s what happened:
Molly: Whee! look at me! I can do really good cartwheels now!
Me: You’d better watch out, doing cartwheels on a slippy rug is not the best idea…
Molly: Ouch! [Blubber, blubber]
Me: I told you so.
Molly: You don’t know what a terrible day I had. Girls were being mean to me at school.
Me: [???? What the hell? Where did that come from?]
I had to suppress a smile as I realised what was happening. Molly subconsciously knew that I wasn’t going to give her sympathy for a bumped bottom, but a potential peer interaction problem would give her the comfort and attention she needed at that time of physical pain.
AAARGHH! I have generated somatopsychosis! At least my early recognition of this oddity has reminded me to be more sympathetic to my children and change my ways. I absolutely don’t want her to subconsciously fabricate mental health problems to gain attention. It does go to show though, the frightening power of our day to day words and actions on our children, and the critical importance of what we DO and DON’T give attention and kindness for.