Psychosomatic Disorders

Authored by Dr Roger Henderson, 30 Dec 2016

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr Laurence Knott, 30 Dec 2016

Psychosomatic means mind (psyche) and body (soma). A psychosomatic disorder is a disease which involves both mind and body. Some physical diseases are thought to be particularly prone to be made worse by mental factors such as stress and anxiety. Your current mental state can affect how bad a physical disease is at any given time.

To an extent, most diseases are psychosomatic - involving both mind and body.

  • There is a mental aspect to every physical disease. How we react to disease and how we cope with disease vary greatly from person to person. For example, the rash of psoriasis may not bother some people very much. However, the rash covering the same parts of the body in someone else may make them feel depressed and more ill.
  • There can be physical effects from mental illness. For example, with some mental illnesses you may not eat, or take care of yourself, very well which can cause physical problems.

However, the term psychosomatic disorder is mainly used to mean ... "a physical disease that is thought to be caused, or made worse, by mental factors".

Some physical diseases are thought to be particularly prone to be made worse by mental factors such as stress and anxiety. For example, these include psoriasis, eczema, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and heart disease. It is thought that the actual physical part of the illness (the extent of a rash, the level of the blood pressure, etc) can be affected by mental factors. This is difficult to prove. However, many people with these and other physical diseases say that their current mental state can affect how bad their physical disease is at any given time.

Some people also use the term psychosomatic disorder when mental factors cause physical symptoms but where there is no physical disease. For example, a chest pain may be caused by stress and no physical disease can be found. See separate leaflet called Somatisation/Somatoform Disorders for more details.

It is well known that the mind can cause physical symptoms. For example, when we are afraid or anxious we may develop:

  • A fast heart rate.
  • A 'thumping heart' (palpitations).
  • Feeling sick (nauseated).
  • Shaking (tremor).
  • Sweating.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Chest pain.
  • Headaches.
  • A knot in the stomach.
  • Fast breathing.

These physical symptoms are due to increased activity of nervous impulses sent from the brain to various parts of the body and to the release of adrenaline (epinephrine) into the bloodstream when we are anxious.

However, the exact way that the mind can cause certain other symptoms is not clear. Also, how the mind can affect actual physical diseases (rashes, blood pressure, etc) is not clear. It may have something to do with nervous impulses going to the body, which we do not fully understand. There is also some evidence that the brain may be able to affect certain cells of the immune system, which is involved in various physical diseases.

Each disease has its own treatment options. For physical diseases, physical treatments such as medication or operations are usually the most important. However, healthcare workers will usually try to treat a person as a whole and take into account mental and social factors which may be contributing to a disease. Therefore, treatments to ease stress, anxiety, depression, etc, may help if they are thought to be contributing to your physical disease.

Further reading and references

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