How to Handle a Stress-Related Psychosomatic Illness

stressed woman with her head in her hands at work desk

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Psychosomatic illness involves experiencing physical symptoms that are influenced by psychological problems or emotional stress. Stress-related illness is very common, but people often mistakenly think that the physical symptoms caused by or exacerbated by stress are not serious. Psychosomatic illness can cause physical symptoms that have a serious impact on your health.

An estimated 60 to 80% of primary care visits are due to health problems influenced at least in part by stress, so psychosomatic illness is more common than people realize.

Types of Psychosomatic Illness

Psychosomatic illness can impact the body in a number of different ways. Some common examples of symptoms and problems that a person might experience that stem from psychological causes include:

  • Back pain
  • Body aches
  • Cognitive problems
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Headaches and migraines
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Pain
  • Stomach upset
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Skin rash
  • Weight changes

It is important to note that this does not mean that these conditions are always caused by psychosomatic illness. They often have medical causes.

If you are experiencing these problems, you should talk to your healthcare provider in order to identify the cause and receive appropriate treatment.

Stress-Induced Symptoms

When you are under stress, you may experience physical symptoms. These can include aches, pains, muscle spasms, and headaches, possibly from unconsciously tensing your muscles for extended periods. This is because your body secretes a hormone called cortisol when you are under stress.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. It plays an important part in the body's stress response. When a person is under stress, cortisol helps prepare the body to deal with the threat. However, too much cortisol is bad for health and can contribute to high blood pressure, impaired cognition, increased inflammation, lower immunity, and other health consequences

In addition to being the "stress hormone," cortisol affects wide range of other body functions. This affects your blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and glucose levels. This is why too much of the hormone, particularly over a long period of time, can lead to problems such as stomach problems, thyroid problems, slow wound healing, hypoglycemia, and decreased bone density.

These symptoms can lead you to see a doctor, who then may rule out any disease process that might be causing them. Without a diagnosis, you may only get treatment aimed at relieving the symptoms or no treatment at all. You may continue to have the symptoms or only partial relief from them.

Your healthcare provider may refer you to a mental health professional to help address some of the psychological and emotional factors contributing to your illness.

Psychological treatments and stress management are important, but this does not mean that psychosomatic illnesses do not require medical treatment. Medications may be prescribed to help treat symptoms that you are experiencing.

Coping With Psychosomatic Illness

In addition to treating the physical symptoms, there are strategies that can help manage psychological aspects of the condition and manage stress levels. A few different solutions might be effective for relieving stress-related psychosomatic illness.

Psychotherapy

Research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective for treating stress-related disorders. CBT can minimize stress by correcting faulty negative beliefs, reducing safety-seeking behaviors, and enhancing stress coping skills.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may also help reduce stress levels and improve coping skills.

Medications

Your healthcare provider or therapist may also prescribe medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety can contribute to physical symptoms, so medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines may be helpful for improving well-being.

Self-Help

Self-help may also be an effective tool for reducing medically unexplained symptoms and improving quality of life. Research suggests that self-guided stress management can be helpful for managing symptoms of stress. However, this approach may be best utilized as a first step or as part of a more comprehensive treatment program.

Relieving Stress for Health

If you are experiencing health concerns that might be related to stress, your first step should be to talk to your healthcare provider. They can rule out other causes and recommend treatments that may help.

However, there are also steps you can take to relieve stress and improve your overall health. To stay healthy, learn to deal with stress well and eliminate excessive stress from your life. You need to create a healthy lifestyle that includes less stress and more well-being.

Strategies that may be helpful for reducing stress levels include:

There are dozens of stress-relieving tactics available, so it is important to learn what stress relievers work best for you. Create a stress management game plan to examine and change the stress in your life. By maintaining healthy habits, you can minimize the stress in your life and reduce the impact of stress-related psychosomatic illness on your health and well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you tell if something is psychosomatic?

    If you experience physical symptoms in the absence of an injury, disease, or illness, there is a chance your symptoms might be psychosomatic or stress-related. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider for an assessment and diagnosis. If no medical causes are found, your healthcare provider can recommend treatments to address symptoms, work with you to manage stress, and refer you to a mental health professional for further assistance.

  • Do psychosomatic symptoms feel real?

    Psychosomatic symptoms are real. While they may be attributed to stress or psychological origins, they have a very real impact on your body. Psychosomatic symptoms are not "all in your head" or imaginary. They are real symptoms that require real treatments. Unfortunately, stigma about psychosomatic illness often leads people to avoid seeking treatment.

  • What medications can help psychosomatic illness?

    Medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs may be prescribed to help treat some of the psychological issues that are contributing to symptoms. Other medications may also be prescribed to help alleviate symptoms of muscle pain, stomach upset, and headache. Medical treatments may also be needed to treat conditions that are caused by chronic stress, such as problems with blood glucose levels and elevated blood pressure.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Dessel NV, Boeft MD, Wouden JCVD, et al. Non-Pharmacological Interventions for Somatoform Disorders and Medically Unexplained Physical Symptoms (MUPS) in Adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. January 2014. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd011142.pub2.

  • Gils AV, Schoevers RA, Bonvanie IJ, Gelauff JM, Roest AM, Rosmalen JG. Self-Help for Medically Unexplained Symptoms. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2016;78(6):728–739. doi:10.1097/psy.0000000000000325.

  • Menon V, Rajan T, Kuppili P, Sarkar S. Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Medically Unexplained Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Published Controlled Trials. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. 2017;39(4):399. doi:10.4103/ijpsym.ijpsym_17_17.