Wendy L. Patrick, JD, PhD, wrote in Psychology Today that during a pandemic, public anxiety spreads faster than the disease, as people begin to experience symptoms widely publicized as being associated with the virus. This is true even when the only “exposure” they have had is through their television sets or computer screens. Although the psychosomatic illness is not physically contagious, it is emotionally infectious both personally and vicariously when shared with loved ones or through social media. Thankfully, the research addresses how to combat imaginary illness, freeing up more of your time to protect yourself from the real thing.
What are Psychosomatic Symptoms?
According to Very Well Mind, understanding psychosomatic illness requires first understanding what this term means. The psychosomatic definition refers to real physical symptoms that arise from or are influenced by the mind and emotions rather than a specific organic cause in the body (such as injury or infection). A psychosomatic illness originates from or is aggravated by emotional stress and manifests in the body as psychogenic pain or physical pain and other symptoms. Depression can also contribute to psychosomatic illness, especially when the body’s immune system has been weakened by severe and/or chronic stress. A common misconception is that a psychosomatic disorder is imaginary or “all in the head.” In reality, psychosomatic symptoms are real and require treatment just as any other illness would. Unfortunately, effective treatment doesn’t always come in a timely or effective manner. The pervasive social stigma attached to psychosomatic symptoms may prevent some from seeking treatment. Stigma is also present in research and medical communities, in part because of the health professional’s own experiences personally and their experience with psychosomatic disorder within the family unit.
False Positives: The Danger of Self-Diagnosis
Widely publicized outbreaks result in widespread self-diagnoses. Potential symptoms, either real or imagined, fuel increased fear of having contracted whatever disease is being discussed. Wheaton et al. corroborate this reality by noting that outbreaks, which are highly publicized can lead to “mass psychogenic illness,” where healthy people misinterpret non-serious bodily sensations such as feeling short of breath or dizzy, as evidence that they have become sick. They note that misdiagnosis can cause hypervigilance, increased anxiety, and extreme safety behaviors that can negatively impact society when they miss work or overuse medical resources.
According to Rachel Lynn, MD, vaccination, handwashing, disinfecting high-touch surfaces, social distancing, wearing masks, and staying at home are the best tools we have right now to protect each other and ourselves from the coronavirus (COVID-19). That being said, it can be hard not to worry when there’s a constant influx of information about surges in infections, and new COVID-19 symptoms being added to the ever-growing list, as doctors and researchers learn more about this coronavirus. So, how can we counteract the panicky feeling that sometimes overcomes us when we find ourselves asking questions like, “Does this headache mean I have COVID-19? What about that cough at lunchtime? Am I tasting things correctly? Is my sense of smell normal?”
Dr. Anna Schrack with the Rice Psychology Group stated that before COVID-19, these behaviors would’ve likely been cause for further investigation, but now, many see it as part of being vigilant against the spread. So, how can we protect ourselves and those we love without causing undue stress and worry? How can we deal with psychosomatic symptoms (experiencing physical discomfort due to mental or emotional symptoms) and anxiety in a healthy way?
What You Can Do about Psychosomatic Symptoms
The best way to handle these thoughts is by challenging them. This takes all sorts of courage and can be accomplished in several different ways.
Look at the evidence by taking your temperature. If it’s high, then take the appropriate steps from there. If not, then move on. Remind yourself that just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean it’s true. In this case, that tightness in your chest might be from the heavy lifting you did the day before.
In addition, feeling like a prisoner in your home doesn’t mean you actually are one. You can still go out for a jog, garden, walk the dog, or wash the car. Remind yourself that there are many symptoms for COVID-19, and just because you might have one doesn’t mean you have the virus.
Focus on what you can control. You can’t control what others do. You can, however, control how to listen to the CDC’s guidelines regarding staying home as much as possible, disinfecting your hands and other surfaces, and not touching your face.
Finally, one of the best ways to prevent these “symptoms” is by managing your own anxiety and stress. Limiting how much news you take in each day and challenging unhelpful thoughts are a great place to start. These strategies might also include setting firm work/life/school boundaries (especially as many people are working and taking classes from home), eating well, going outside for a few minutes a day (even if it’s in your backyard or the sidewalk around the neighborhood), taking time to meditate, and being kind to yourself.
This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.