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Bronstein, C. (2011). On Psychosomatics: The Search for Meaning. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 92(1):173-195.

(2011). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 92(1):173-195

On Psychosomatics: The Search for Meaning Language Translation

Catalina Bronstein

Mind: Hullo! Where have you sprung from?

Body: What — you again? I am Body; you can call me Soma if you like. Who are you?

Mind: Call me Psyche — Psyche-Soma.

Body: Soma-Psyche

Mind: We must be related

Body: Never — not if I can help it.

Mind: Oh, come. Not as bad as that, is it?

(Bion, 1979, p. 433)


In 1964, an Expert Committee of the World Health Organization noted two different meanings implied by the term psychosomatic. The first referred to “the holistic outlook in medicine, a move away from a narrow focusing on diseased organs and systems to a study of the patient in his environment, both social and psychological” (Whitlock, 1976, p. 16). This intended to bring a more humanistic, unitary approach to diagnosis and treatment of physical diseases. At the same time, with the enlargement of the concept came the loss of its more specific meaning. The second and more limited use of the term confines it to those diseases in which psychological factors are supposed to play a special role. Whitlock noticed the paradox involved in these two different uses, because when the term is used to describe only certain diseases it appears to undermine the unitary approach to medicine. This paradox, as yet, remains unsolved.

The term ‘psychosomatic’ is now in common use although its definition is still less than clear. We can perhaps adopt Whitlock's definition of psychosomatic conditions as those “in which emotional influences play a significant part in their genesis, recurrence or potentiation” (Whitlock, 1976, p. 19). This certainly does not exclude the possible co-existence of many other factors that contribute to the development of a particular illness (genetic, physical, environmental, etc.). However, the specific domain covered by the term ‘psychosomatic’ is open to debate.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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