Dizzy diplomats, twitching schoolgirls, children in comas … psychosomatic illnesses are not always as unexplainable as they seem, writes neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan
I cannot resist a news headline that refers to a mystery illness and there is no shortage to keep me interested. “Mystery of 18 twitching teenagers in New York”; “Mysterious sleeping sickness spreads in Kazakhstani village”; “200 Colombian girls fall ill with a mysterious illness”; “The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome”. One medical disorder seems to attract this description more than any other: psychosomatic illness. That the body is the mouthpiece of the mind is evident in our posture, in the smiles on our faces, in the tremor of our nervous hands. But, still, when the body speaks too explicitly, when the power of the mind leads to physical disability, it can be hard to understand why. This perplexity is most apparent when psychosomatic disorders affect groups, spreading from person to person like a social virus, in a phenomenon often referred to as mass hysteria.
We are currently caught in a pandemic. We have been ordered to hide and to search our bodies for symptoms. If there was ever a time for a psychosomatic disorder to spread through anxiety and suggestion, this is it. The threat of a virus can affect health in more ways than one. Since 2018 I have been visiting communities affected by suspected contagions of psychosomatic illness. I have seen what fear can do to our physical health. I have also seen the curative effect of hope.
When it comes to mass hysteria, allusions to witch‑hunts or The Crucible are never very far away
Sometimes doctors are so busy looking inside people’s heads that they forget the social factors creating illness