I first heard this phrase as a medical student. It was used in that case to refer to a patient’s back pain, which developed suddenly after her parents had passed away. My attending physician at the time called the back pain a “symbol of the (sudden) lack of support in her life.” He explained that in order to heal, her grief would need to be addressed, and she would need to find other sources of support in her life.
Later in my student years, I learned that according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (which I do not now practice, though I studied it), each organ system is associated with a particular emotion. For instance, the lungs are called the “seat of grief.” So when I have a patient who presents with chronic respiratory infections or asthma, I investigate and address organic causes first. But one of the questions I always ask in a case history is, “When did this start?” If the answer dates back to a major loss, trauma, or tragedy (and especially if accompanied by a perpetual lump in the throat or frequent sighing – two other symptoms of suppressed grief), that is often a big clue to me that physical treatments alone aren’t going to be enough to effect a cure.
Correlations between Physical Symptoms and Emotional Trauma
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study surveyed over 9,000 adults on adverse childhood experiences, including psychological, physical, or sexual abuse as well as caregivers who were substance abusers, mentally ill, suicidal, or had a history of imprisonment. The study demonstrated a strong correlation between adverse experiences and serious adult illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung or liver disease. (This, again, makes sense from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective: the lungs are called the seat of grief, and the liver of anger.) These adults also had a much higher incidence of health risk factors, such as smoking, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and sexually transmitted illnesses, as well as physical inactivity and obesity, depression and attempted suicide.
This study echoes the findings of the ACE study: women with childhood abuse report physical problems in twice as many body systems as women without a history of abuse, including panic, depression, musculoskeletal pain, vaginal or pelvic disorders, skin disorders and respiratory illness.
When no organic cause can be found for these symptoms, the patient is diagnosed with somatization. This study shows that over 90% of women diagnosed with somatization disorder have a history of some form of abuse. Additionally, this study shows a clear correlation between physical, emotional and sexual abuse and fibromyalgia.
These studies strongly imply that in patients with a history of abuse or trauma, treating physical symptoms alone misses at least some of the picture, and in some cases fails to address the root cause entirely.
What Suppression Does
Naturopathic philosophy begins with the belief that the body knows what it’s doing, and symptoms are always the best possible adaptations to the environment or circumstances. Example: eating contaminated food leads to either vomiting or diarrhea. (Your body is trying to expel a poison.) A virus is trying to replicate itself and destroy your cells, so your body spikes a fever to render it less active. In the face of a fungal infection, the body walls it off so that it cannot continue to spread. All smart moves.
Emotions are the same way. We are taught that our positive emotions should be expressed (love, joy, excitement) while our negative ones are not socially acceptable and should therefore be suppressed (anger, sadness, grief, and fear). But if we consider negative emotions to be symptoms that something is wrong, in either our lives or our thoughts, then suppression allows that harmful thought process or situation to perpetuate.
Plus, long-term, suppression doesn’t work. Suppressed anger leads to festering resentment. Suppressed sadness and grief leads to depression. Suppressed fear leads to anxiety. These unacknowledged emotions can eat us from the inside, leading to self-medication (such as smoking, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, gambling, or any other addiction), as well as chronic illness.
Addressing the Whole Person
Although I usually begin by addressing physical issues and ruling out organic causes, about 80% of the cases I see are not purely physical, and have at least some emotional component. Medicine, exercise, diet, and sleep are all great and necessary for health, but they will only get you so far. If you have some unacknowledged trauma or suppressed emotion in your past, consider finding a good therapist if you have not done so already, and make sure you are doing your part in the process of taking ownership of your emotions. Accept them for what they are, and follow them to their source in order to receive the love of God, of others, and of yourself, in order to heal and move forward.