Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Somatization and the subsymbolic

As we know, trauma increases blood flow to the amygdala while decreasing perfusion to the hippocampus with the effect that procedural, emotional and sensory memory take place without the benefit of symbolization in language and without contextualization (one physiological explanation for dissociation). This phenomenon informs how clinicians can work with experience that has no words. The narrative approach assumes that symbolization is already present. Trauma, including the trauma of chronic misattunement, can cause chronic autonomic nervous system activation (affecting respiration, heart rate, perspiration, muscle tension, etc) with its emphasis on sensory not symbolic representation.

Bucci proposed a multiple code theory of emotional processing, three systems of emotional schema: the subsymbolic (perceptual, sensory), symbolic imagery – both non-verbal— and the symbolic (verbal).  These three systems are separate, but through the relational attunement and secure attachment with caregivers, who use their own emotional and cognitive schema to help children name, accept and regulate their emotional states, connections between the three are forged. In somatization, subsymbolic somatic schema are activated but are dissociated, never linked, or have lost their link to symbolic representations.

Taylor contrasts conversion disorder with somatization disorders. In the former, symbolization is intact and emotions are represented, and symptoms are the result of repressed (by an active ego), conflictual fantasies. On the other hand, somatization, writes Taylor, lacks underlying fantasies, and emotions are poorly representable, sometimes called alexithymia. (The ego is made helpless by dissociation.) Two different therapeutic aims ensue. For conversion symptoms, Freud made conscious the unconscious conflict through interpretation, but with somatization symptoms, says Bucci, what is required is a strengthening of connections between the subsymbolic and symbolic.

Gottlieb gives a nice history of the way different psychoanalysts have conceived of psychosomatic symptoms. They argue causality, meaning, and treatment. Students might enjoy contrasting Janet, Freud and MacDougall, as well as distinguishing la pensee operatoire from alexithymia. Many agree that somatization involves dissociation. Where does a child turn when the very people who are to help regulate distressing feelings are also their source? Hopefully, we will, in class, add from our clinical experience the relational intersubjective component of psychosomatic disorders, with the understanding that caregivers powerfully affect one’s ability to symbolize, mentalize, and see the other as an equal center of subjectivity.

Gottlieb, R. (2003). Psychosomatic medicine: the divergent legacies of Freud and Janet. J. Amer. Psa. Assoc., 51:857-881.

Taylor, G. (2003). Somatization and conversion: distinct or overlapping constructs? J Amer Acad Psa, 31:487-508.

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