Mind Body Syndrome is contagious

Written by Dr. Schubiner on June 20, 2008

#6—Mind Body Syndrome is contagious

 

When I first started learning about Mind Body Syndrome a few years ago, I was struck by an account by someone who had what is known as repetitive stress injury.  He wrote an eloquent account of his story, which was published on Kim Ruby’s excellent web site (www.tarpityoga.com) on MBS or TMS, as Dr. Sarno coined the term, Tension Myositis syndrome.  In his account, he spoke of having had RSI many years before, but it got triggered after going to hear a lecture about it. 

 

Medical students are well aware of how the suggestion of the symptoms of an illness can produce those symptoms.  It even has a name, “medical studenitis,” since it is quite common to develop some symptoms of the disease you are studying. 

 

Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot in France in the 1800’s had a clinic for what was known as “hysterics” in the day, although these disorders (now we realize are forms of MBS) were considered to be genetic at the time.  In his clinic, people with headaches, abdominal pain, anxiety, etc. would arrive and Dr. Charcot had “discovered” that there was a progression to this disorder in distinct stages: motor tics (brief, rapid tic-like movements), clowning (striking bizarre poses and holding them), hysterical seizures (shaking as if in a seizure).  Amazingly, when people entered his clinic, they would almost inevitably pass through these stages, confirming Dr. Charcot’s beliefs.  There was a young woman with headaches who came to the clinic.  Her roommate was in the tic stage, and the next day the young woman had developed the same tics.  The power of suggestion is can be extremely strong, especially when given by a powerful person.

 

An auto accident is a powerful situation to have happen.  It can definitely “shake you up.”  Whiplash occurs after auto accidents, but it turns out that whiplash does not occur after auto accidents in all countries (more on this in a later blog).  A study done to look at this was conducted by putting people in a simulation room and having them experience an auto accident.  Despite the fact that their neck did NOT move at all, 10% of the people developed neck pain that lasted at least 4 weeks!!  In some way, they expected to have neck pain and they did.  These people were also those who had the most stress and emotional distress in their lives at the time of the experiment.

 

I have a friend who went to one of my lectures and read Dr. Sarno’s excellent book, The Mindbody Prescription.  He had been having chest pains, despite a normal exercise stress test, so his heart was physically fine.  After reading the book, he started to pay attention to the times when his chest pain occurred and he found (lo and behold) that there were stressful events or stressful thoughts preceding the pains each time.  When he made the connection and dealt with his stress and his thoughts, the chest pain disappeared.  Later, he also noticed that his nasal congestion disappeared too.  He  had nasal congestion in the garden, cutting the lawn, etc. and now he could breathe fine and participate in these activities without problems.  He was amazed.  A few weeks later, he told me about a time when he was in his home talking to a friend.  His friend confided to him that he was having a hard time, was depressed, was on medication and was suicidal at times.  My friend suddenly started sneezing, coughing and his eyes were watering.  He had to excuse himself and went to the bathroom.  While there, he had this thought: “Boy, that got me out of there!”  He realized that his body had reacted in a way it “knew,” by the “allergic reaction.”  Just as suddenly, the reaction stopped.  He realized that his body was trying to protect him from the uncomfortable situation by creating the sneezing/coughing reaction. 

 

A week later, I was in my office seeing a young woman.  I also saw her mother, who was a very nice lady, but one who frequently missed appointments, frequently ran out of medications, frequently called and needed special favors, etc.  I had heard that the mother was very sick and possibly dying earlier.  So I asked the daughter how her mom was.  She told me that her mom was fine, it was a mistake about her serious illness and that the mother would be coming to see me soon.  Immediately, I started sneezing.  I sneezed 7-8 times quite vigorously and I felt that there was a great deal of dust in the room.  The daughter even asked if I was OK.  I pulled myself together and finished the visit.  A few moments later, I went back into the room.  No dust at all.  I stopped to think; what had happened?  It came to me.  I sneezed for two reasons: one, I felt very guilty that I had some unconscious thoughts of hoping the mother wouldn’t be seeing me, i.e. that she would really be too sick (I had to realize that I am human and even though I am embarrassed to have a thought like that, I do, as does almost everyone); secondly, I sneezed because I had “caught it” from my friend who told me about his sneezing in reaction to a stressful event.  My body had chosen the sneezing as a reaction because it had heard the other story and “filed it away” for when it might be useful. 

 

What do you think is the result of the ads on TV for medications for anxiety, erectile dysfunction, fibromyalgia, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and others?  Here is a powerful message suggesting that people get these symptoms.  Some of the people watching are in stressful situations in their lives and this can easily trigger the development of MBS symptoms.  So, the ads actually serve to increase the number of people who may develop MBS.  That is not good for our health.  Fortunately, the more we know, the better we are able to cope with MBS by recognizing that the mind can cause physical symptoms.  So, when I get a physical symptom, one of the first things I do is ask myself two questions: “What is going on right now?”  “Why might I have developed this symptom?”  The answers are often quite obvious.

 

To your health,

Howard Schubiner, MD

 

 

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