How to Handle a Stress-Related Psychosomatic Illness

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Stress-related illness is very common, as is the misconception that physical symptoms that occur due to stress are not serious, or not "real" problems. Psychosomatic illness originates from emotional stress or damaging thought patterns but has physical symptoms that are real and can harm you as much as symptoms that originate from other means. In fact, it's been estimated that over 90 percent of doctor visits are due to health problems influenced at least in part by stress, so psychosomatic illness is more common than people realize.

Medically Unexplained Symptoms Due to Stress

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. Your nervous system is on edge from the fight-or-flight adrenaline and cortisol responses to stress. This affects your blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and glucose levels. You can have stomach and bowel symptoms.

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.


What can you do when psychosomatic illness and medically unexplained symptoms continue? A few reviews have looked at what nonpharmacological solutions might be effective.

Should you get psychological therapy? A review of studies found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) had a moderate effect on symptoms that was superior to control groups that either received treatment as usual or enhanced usual care, or remained on a waiting list. But the studies had several weaknesses, including publication bias.

A previous review of a variety of psychological therapies also found that CBT was the most studied and had enough evidence to draw a conclusion that it may result in a small reduction in symptom severity compared to standard care or the waiting list. However, taking the step of seeing a psychologist is a big one for many people, let alone the cost of therapy.

Self-help appears to be effective for reducing medically unexplained symptoms and improving quality of life. A review of studies found that self-help lowered symptom severity and seemed to maintain that effect on follow-up compared with usual care or being on a waiting list. These studies also were weak for methodology.

Relieving Stress for Health

Do you have a problem with stress and your health? You can experience major and minor illnesses due to increased stress, thanks in part to the effects of cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone. Even your risk of the common cold is increased.​

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.

  • Learn what stress relievers work best for you. There are dozens of stress-relieving tactics available.
  • Create a stress management game plan to examine and change the stress in your life.
  • Choose and maintain healthy habits with a five-step plan.
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  • 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.