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What Causes Psychosomatic Illnesses?

By R. Kayne
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Psychosomatic illnesses are caused by mental and emotional stresses that manifest as physical diseases without biological causes. This includes things like irritable bowel syndrome, upset stomach, muscle aches, tension headaches, chronic fatigue syndrome, hyperventilation or panic attacks, colitis and ulcers, and even infertility. The skill with which a person handles stress affects the potential appearance and severity of psychosomatic symptoms.

Before these conditions can be properly diagnosed, tests must be administered to rule out possible physical reasons for the illness. This step is often frustrating for patient and doctor alike, as test after test comes back negative. This has led some physicians to tell their patients that psychosomatic illnesses are “all in their head.” Today, most doctors know better. Though the root may be mental or emotional, the disease and symptoms are very real.

Psychosomatic illnesses are not faked illnesses, but patients often require treatment for the underlying psychological root. Unfortunately, many people with these illnesses resist psychological counseling as a form of treatment, believing this discounts the disease. Though these illnesses respond to drugs, painkillers and other medical help, symptoms are likely to return unless the underlying cause is addressed.

If not chronic, psychosomatic illnesses might only crop up when a person goes through a particularly stressful time. In these cases, symptoms subside on their own when stress levels fall. These conditions might accompany the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or cyclic pressures at work or home. Aside from creating an illness, emotional stress might also make an existing illness worse. Psychological stress can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system, lower energy levels, and exacerbate a weakened condition.

While psychosomatic illnesses are real, they can be avoided. Learning to handle stress and replace negative thinking patterns through cognitive behavioral changes can provide relief. People with these types of illnesses do not intentionally make themselves sick, nor are they aware they are causing the illnesses. In the case of chronic patterns, it is likely that therapy will be necessary to replace existing unhealthy patterns with new healthier coping mechanisms.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1001970 — On Aug 06, 2019

In response to may of the people here--maybe you should consider that the health issue is real,L but we don't yet understand the cause or have the tests and/or the studies to figure it out. Many illnesses were thought to be psychosomatic until they discovered the real cause.

Once upon a time, ulcers were thought to be caused by stress but we now know they are caused by H pylori. We were once told that women's illnesses were caused by a 'wandering uterus'. We were also told that people got Tuberculosis because they had a "tubercluan personality". And once upon a time. women and children died by something called 'childbed fever' because doctors refused to wash their hands before surgery.

Despite Dr. Sammelweis linking the cause of death with the transport of 'something' on the hands, doctors refused to accept the truth. This happened before germ theory and microscopes.

So we often don't have the knowledge or the proper testing material to find the causes of things. That doesn't mean they don't exist or are in people's heads. What a convenient 'out' for the medical community to blame what they don't know on the patient. Like blaming the victim. And also what a beautiful way for industry to keep damaging people's health with environmental toxins then claiming there is no known way those toxins could be harming people. This diagnosis is a foolproof way of fooling the masses and it works like a charm.

By anon296171 — On Oct 10, 2012

@melissahier: I have had the same situation where a loved one refused any alternative help. The solution to that -- although it sounds surprising -- is to let them go. Sometimes we, with all our good intentions, think we must help in our way. What we can do is help in their way. If you love them, then let them go. I did that and I recovered from my frustrations. The other person recovered too, and both of us are very happy and closer, though we are far away, now.

By anon244380 — On Feb 01, 2012

What are the effects of psychosomatic illnesses?

By anon162451 — On Mar 23, 2011

I can identify with bramas. I had a sore throat for two months which no pills could take away, and two days after my doctor prescribed a throat swab, it disappeared! I'm not aware of any "issues" in my life at present,and I'm attending therapy sessions and so lots of stuff has already been worked out. So why has this sore throat suddenly come back?

By anon58748 — On Jan 04, 2010

There is a great book called "You can heal your life" by Louise Hay. It helps us to see how our mind and body work together. The body responds to what the mind cannot handle. It is not a blaming game, as if it is our own fault. but helps to redirect ones thinking. But a person must be ready to see that fact. As an adult of years of child abuse, it was a life saver. Hope this helps.

By bramas — On May 25, 2009

I have difficulty with my daughter and have noticed that any time there is a flare up in our relationship, my throat becomes inflamed and I feel ill. I handle this by trying to repair things and putting some distance between us.

She is hurting, and I suspect why, but I cannot fix what has already happened. As a result she is sometimes very mean to me, wanting to hurt me as much as she thinks I hurt her. I lose control and sink into depression with accompanying aches and pains. I want to be close to her, but proximity is painful both emotionally and physically. I've asked her to attend counseling with me; as a result she accuses me of saying she needs psychiatric help.

By melissahier — On Jun 27, 2008

Could anyone give me any ideas on convincing a loved one to at least consider that their health problems could be psychosomatic? After two years of almost every medical test coming back negative, and symptoms continuing, I'm near the end of my rope. I try to be patient, but find myself just wanting to bury my head in the sand regarding this. What kind of doctor should one see? Any advice on how to influence another direction would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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