Butterflies in the stomach. Racing heartbeat. Sweaty palms. Shortness of breath. Almost all of us have, at times, experienced these types of psychosomatic symptoms, often in reaction to stress or anxiety. But what happens when these symptoms become a daily occurrence and begin to interfere with our lives? What if we become fixated on them? And, maybe most importantly, how do we distinguish psychosomatic symptoms from serious medical issues?
Let’s take a look at the phenomenon of psychosomatic symptoms and illnesses, and what you need to know if you are experiencing them.
What Are Psychosomatic Illnesses?
Psychosomatic illnesses happen when people develop physical symptoms that have no clear medical cause and appear to be influenced by the person’s emotional state. Sometimes psychosomatic symptoms and illnesses have negative connotations. You may be told that what you are experiencing is “all in your head.” But, while there is a mind and body connection happening when it comes to psychosomatic symptoms, the physical symptoms themselves are very real and can be quite significant at times.
What Is Somatic Symptom Disorder?
At times, people who experience frequent psychosomatic symptoms may become fixated on them and develop somatic symptom disorder, which the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines as when one has “a significant focus on physical symptoms, such as pain, weakness or shortness of breath, that results in major distress and/or problems functioning.” Experiencing psychosomatic symptoms from time to time, however, doesn’t mean you have the disorder. In order to be diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder, you must experience “excessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors relating to the physical symptoms,” the APA explains.
What Causes Psychosomatic Symptoms and Illnesses?
Psychosomatic illness, psychosomatic disorders, and psychosomatic symptoms are usually caused by medium to high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. Simply put, it’s a mind and body phenomenon — but it’s also a little more complicated than that.
What is the role of stress in somatization?
When you are experiencing emotional distress, your body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These aren’t necessarily bad — they are “fight or flight” hormones secreted by our bodies when we feel stressed and anxious, and they help us act quickly on our feet, and shield ourselves from danger, for example. A kind of stress called “eustress” refers to the positive stress that motivates us to get out of bed in the morning and face our to-do list with vigor.
But when excessive amounts of stress hormones are released, they can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as digestive issues, heart issues (including increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, and chest pain), as well as a host of other psychosomatic symptoms. Stress hormones can also cause fluctuations in serotonin levels as well as a weakening of your immune system, both of which can exacerbate or worsen physical ailments.
Risk Factors for Psychosomatic Symptoms and Illnesses
All of us experience psychosomatic symptoms occasionally, but some people are more prone to these symptoms than others. There are certain risk factors that might make you prone to more frequent psychosomatic symptoms or make you more likely to experience a psychosomatic disorder, including:
- Having a history of anxiety or depression
- Having experienced a recent traumatic event
- Having a history of childhood trauma
- Some people seem to have a genetic propensity to be more sensitive to pain and to somatic experiences
While none of these factors are directly tied with psychosomatic symptoms, there is a strong correlation and a licensed therapist can help work with you to better understand what might be contributing to your experience.
What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Psychosomatic Illnesses?
There are many different signs and symptoms that are psychosomatic in nature. It’s important to understand two basic principles about psychosomatic symptoms and illnesses:
- Psychosomatic symptoms can vary widely from person to person, and your symptoms may change dramatically from day to day and year to year.
- You can only be sure that a symptom is psychosomatic in nature after your healthcare provider has ruled out other serious causes. Some psychosomatic symptoms overlap with serious health conditions, which is why it’s important for you to rule out those first.
Some of the most common psychosomatic symptoms include:
- Bloated stomach
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid pulse
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Increase in blood pressure
- Brain fog
- Sweaty palms
- Chronic pain
- Neck and shoulder tension
Again, if you experience any of these symptoms — especially chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, increased blood pressure, or a sudden headache — you should seek medical care, as these symptoms may be indicative of a serious medical issue. You should not self-diagnose serious symptoms. You will only receive a diagnosis of psychosomatic symptoms when all other diseases or causes are ruled out by your care provider.
Are Psychosomatic Symptoms Harmful?
In and of themselves, psychosomatic symptoms are not harmful. However, if you experience chronic stress and your symptoms become ongoing, you may experience a decline in your quality of life, you may find that other health problems are exacerbated, and your symptoms may lead to increased feelings of anxiety or depression. That’s why it’s important to take psychosomatic symptoms seriously and seek treatment for them just as you would for any medical condition. In the case of true psychosomatic symptoms, you would likely seek the care of a doctor, licensed therapist, counselor, or someone who can help you with stress management and mental health issues.
How Are Psychosomatic Illnesses and Symptoms Treated?
If you have seen your healthcare provider and your symptoms or illnesses have been diagnosed as psychosomatic in nature, there are a couple of things you can do.
First, if your doctor feels that you are dealing with significant mental health challenges or could just use some help managing your stress, depression, or anxiety, they will likely refer you to a mental health professional. A therapist or counselor would be able to help you pinpoint what is causing your stress and suggest methods for managing your feelings so that they become less intense and less likely to exacerbate your symptoms.
Therapy and counseling services can be in-person, or via telehealth services like Talkspace. In addition to talk therapy, your therapist may recommend psychiatric medication, which can help you manage your anxiety or depression and also decrease your psychosomatic symptoms.
Still, tackling the stress and emotions triggering your psychosomatic symptoms may not be enough. In some cases, it’s important to treat your psychosomatic symptoms medically. For example, if you are experiencing chronic pain as a result of stress, taking painkillers should not be ruled out. The same is true for digestive issues and nausea symptoms — medications for digestion discomfort and nausea may be appropriate . Just because you don’t have a virus or disease doesn’t mean you should suffer; not only that, but experiencing high levels of discomfort often only makes stress worse, creating an ongoing cycle of stress and psychosomatic symptoms.
How To Cope With the Stress That Causes Psychosomatic Illness
Besides speaking to a therapist or a mental health counselor who can help you identify the thought patterns, relationships, life circumstances, or other dynamics that may be causing you stress, there are some simple lifestyle changes you can implement yourself to decrease stress and also quell symptoms.
The main idea here is to calm down your nervous symptom, express your feelings so that they don’t stay “bottled up,” and learn how to recognize the first signs of stress so it doesn’t spiral out of control.
Here are some activities that may help:
- Exercise: even a quick daily walk can help you manage stress and give you a chance to think about how you are feeling.
- Journaling: a great way to explore your feelings safely and openly.
- Meditation and breathing techniques: these tools can help you learn to calm your nervous system when you begin to experience stress.
- Daily check ins: speaking with trusted loved ones can give you an outlet to express your feeling and come up with healthy ways of managing relationships or difficult situations.
- Get enough sleep: when you’re sleep deprived, you’re more likely to react to stressful situations more intensely, and are less able to cope with adversity. Sleep is vital to mental health.
- Decrease sugar and caffeine: cutting back on these substances can help lower anxiety as well as psychosomatic symptoms.
- Self-care: adding self-care into your routine can help. Even a few minutes a day where you can focus on your own needs and pleasures — whether that be a warm bath, a hobby, or watching your favorite TV show — can work wonders for your stress levels.
The Bottom Line
Experiencing psychosomatic symptoms can make you feel powerless, especially if they become chronic or disrupt your life. If you are in a place where your symptoms are making it hard to function — for example, if you experience chronic pain or chronic digestive issues — you may feel desperate to feel better. You may also feel upset if healthcare professionals seem dismissive of your symptoms because they are not indicative of a physically diagnosable medical condition.
Remember that even though your symptoms are psychosomatic in nature, they should be taken seriously, and you should feel empowered to receive the care that you deserve. Your symptoms are real, and treatment is out there to help you manage your stress, decrease your symptoms, and live a healthy and balanced life. If you’re looking for help with psychosomatic symptoms consider online therapy — a convenient, inexpensive way to get started.