Dr. Hans Selye, MD, introduced a groundbreaking concept developed from studies of rats in the 1930s that stress precedes our physical and mental ailments. He wrote a comprehensive treatise on stress, first published in 1950, discussing the role of stress for virtually every conceivable illness. In it, Dr. Selye described a process of stress that can lead to what he called general adaptation syndrome, a term to universally describe the human body’s alarm reaction to stress. General adaptation syndrome has become a model for understanding how illness occurs.
Selye’s model conceptualizes the effects of stress in three stages. In the first stage, our bodies’ alarm reaction leads to symptoms such as tiredness, change in appetite, changes in hormones, and others. The body works to maintain equilibrium, so that it is able to withstand a certain amount of stress in the second stage. The intensity of stress may lead to a third stage, the exhaustion stage, during which the body loses its ability to maintain equilibrium and responds with symptoms caused by the alarm reaction. In both the first and third stages, there may be functional change within the body. In the third stage, however, this change may be more detrimental and lead to conditions such as chronic pain, and diagnosable conditions like allergies, autoimmune disorders, gastro-intestinal or genitourinary problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, or mental illness.
Though general adaptation syndrome is often used for describing psychological stress, Selye’s treatise mostly describes physical conditions. Too much sleep or too much exercise can both create stress reactions in the body. And a healthy diet supports the body’s ability to respond to stress.
The human body is designed to withstand some stress. But when the body is overwhelmed, psychological stress can add to problems and weaken the immune system, or lead to depression, clinical anxiety, or other physiological conditions. Regardless of the source of overwhelm, psychological stress may be singled out as the exacerbating factor of both psychological and physical chronic illnesses. A broken bone may heal in a few weeks, but if healing is slow, psychological stress may block healing.
The mind-body connection
Dr. Selye did not describe how mental stress may contribute toward chronic illness. However, Dr. John Sarno, MD, based on observations of his patients over decades of work, linked psychological stress to physical pain. He wrote (p. 29):
Neck, shoulder and back pain syndromes are not mechanical problems to be cured by mechanical means. They have to do with people’s feelings, their personalities and the vicissitudes of life. If this is true, the conventional management of these pain syndromes is a medical travesty. Traditional medical diagnoses focus on the machine, the body, while the real problem seems to relate to what makes the machine work — the mind.
Conventional medicine treats chronic pain with medication, which can cause more stress on the body, pushing the body into a vicious cycle that can spiral a person into worse scenarios such as addiction or depression. Dr. Sarno’s approach avoided this added stress. He surmised that the physical symptoms of his patients were a distraction from repressed feelings, a way to avoid the discomfort of emotions with negative valence, that is, emotions that negatively affect mood.
Though much of Dr. Sarno’s written work focused on musculoskeletal problems, the same principles apply to other ailments. Dr. Jacques Fumex, a retired gastroenterologist in France reported that roughly 80% of his patients’ gastrointestinal problems were caused by hidden emotions (personal communication, May 17, 2020).
Theory of somatic quieting and illness
Repressed or hidden emotions lead to physical symptoms and they prevent the healing of illness or injury. As Dr. Sarno said, “everything medical is influenced in some way by the emotions” (p. 147). These emotions block the body’s natural ability to heal.
But why are these emotions repressed? Emotions with negative valence typically have manifestation of physical sensations associated with them. Anger may be tense or hot. Sadness may feel heavy or tired. Anxiety may have pressure on the chest or a headache. Any of these emotions will have a combination of at least two sensations in the body associated with them, and these associations are different for everybody. The commonality is that these sensations are uncomfortable. Repression prevents a person from being aware of these sensations.
As mentioned in What is Somatic Quieting, the human body is wired to naturally regulate our emotions. This emotion regulation is the process of somatic quieting. When the body is unable to regulate an emotion, this emotion becomes a block to healing. In a way, the repressed emotion short-circuits the central nervous system, preventing signals from reaching parts of the nervous system that tell the body to regulate, or calm.
Some emotions are not repressed but are active. A person with a lot of anger may also struggle with physical pain. However, often, other emotions precede some activie emotional states. The anger iceberg, a concept of The Gottman Institute, explains that anger is one visible emotion with possibly many other emotions underneath. These hidden emotions are unresolved, fueling into anger.
Anger is not the only feeling with other underlying emotions. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder also have underlying emotions that fuel their conditions and are often associated with physical pain. Similar to the way anger, depression, and other emotional states may hide other emotions, many of our behaviors may be fueled by uncomfortable, unresolved emotions. Resolving these emotions by engaging in somatic quieting removes blocks — short circuits — that lead to undesired behaviors or symptoms. And resolving these emotions removes blocks to our ability to heal physically.
Other active emotions may also block our bodies’ ability to heal. They do not need to be repressed or hidden. Yet some emotional states persist without regulating. Actively engaging with somatic quieting can help these uncomfortable emotions regulate, thus removing the blocks from our nervous system that hinder healing.
Sarno, J. E. (1991). Healing back pain: The mind-body connection. New York: Warner Books.
Selye, H. (1960). The physiology and pathology of exposure to stress: A treatise based on the concepts of the general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation. Montreal: Acta Inc. Medical Publishers.