It’s a common experience:  A patient goes to see the doctor about a physical problem such as  frequent stomachaches, chronic pain, or fatigue.  After some tests and appointments with a specialist, the doctor concludes that the problem is psychological, or “in your head.”

Patients may then asks themselves “What does this mean?  Is the doctor saying my symptoms are not REAL?  I know they’re real!”  This feeling of being misunderstood can lead to a shut down in the communication between doctor and patient.  The patient leaves the office silently, intent on finding a new doctor who will understand these physical symptoms.  Although the patient was given a referral for a counselor or psychologist, the patient promptly throws it away, certain that no psychologist could help with a physical problem.

Were the problems “real” or “psychological”?  The answer is not so simple.  Physical problems can have multiple causes, and can be “real” and emotionally based at the same time.  Psychological factors such as anxiety, stress, and depression cause real physical symptoms.  In recent years, research has demonstrated the powerful connection between the mind and the body.  Through this research, psychologists and physicians continue to discover specific ways that mental states affect physical functioning.  Research has shown that many physical problems are influenced by a person’s emotional state, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Perception of pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Breathing problems
  • Migraine Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Immune system functioning

Furthermore, research has shown that psychological therapy produces positive changes in the brain that are detectable by medical tests such as a PET scan or MRI.  When the brain changes, the body can also change.  If your doctor has advised you to see a counselor, consider whether this may be useful to you.  Ask your doctor questions about why they think counseling will help you.  When in doubt, seek a second opinion.  Many people with psychologically based physical problems benefit from a combination of counseling and traditional medical treatments.  Your counselor can talk with you about how counseling can improve your physical problem.  Learning to manage stress and learning relaxation exercises are common approaches that counselors use to help people with physical problems.