The term psychosomatic refers to a physical illness or other conditions caused by mental factors such as anxiety or emotional problems. These sicknesses are usually manifested in the body as physical pain. Depression can contribute to psychosomatic illnesses as well, especially when the body's immune system has been weakened by severe or chronic stress.
A usual misconception is that psychosomatic conditions are imaginary (all in the head). Physical symptoms of psychosomatic conditions are real and need to be addressed just as any other sickness would.
Unfortunately, this does not always occur in an effective or timely manner. The pervasive social stigma attached to psychosomatic illness might prevent someone from seeking therapy.
Even when someone does seek therapy, stigma is also present in medical and research communities, at least partly. The reason is the processes that drive the stress-illness relationship are not yet fully understood.
You might not have thought much about the unique ways of stress manifests physically. Still, it can be beneficial to learn how to recognize when you are under extreme stress. When you identify the signs, you can work on decreasing the impact stress has on your health.
Although it sounds like a complicated undertaking, there are simple ways you could determine if you are stressed out.
For instance, take both your hands and touch your neck. If your hands feel colder than your neck significantly, it is a sign you are under stress. If they are warm, you are relaxed. Other usual physical signs of stress include:
- Sweaty palms
- Racing heart
- "Butterflies" in the stomach
- Tense muscles
Bodily signs of stress might be different, depending on gender. For instance, while women often report symptoms such as fatigue despite getting enough sleep, abdominal bloating, irritability, and changes to their menstrual periods, symptoms and signs of stress in men are more likely to include chest pain, changes in sex drive, and increased blood pressure.
Symptoms of stress also depend on age. Children often display anxiety through their bodies because they haven't yet developed the language they need to show how they feel. For instance, a child who is having a hard time at school might have frequent stomachaches and might be sent home or asked to stay home.
Stress in the teen years can be especially intense, particularly during periods of significant social adjustment and hormonal shifts. Sometimes, signs of stress in individuals in this age group might be attributed or missed to "teen angst" when it is really a sign of adolescent depression.
The elderly are also prone to depression, as they are often contending with several compounding parameters, such as isolation, grief and loss, and severe or chronic health issues. Make sure you understand the signs of depression in older adults if you are caring for an aging loved one.
There are actually different types of stress; some of them can be positive. Eustress is what makes life exciting and invigorating. It's a feeling that makes you want to get up in the morning and feel motivated.
If you've ever felt a sense of excitement and fulfillment when completing a project or enjoyed the thrill of a roller coaster ride, you have experienced "good" stress.
On the other hand, if you have ever experienced going through a big life change, a significant loss, or endured other stressors, you realize what "bad" stress feels like.
Just like you may feel the giddiness and uplifting feelings of good stress all over, the negative impacts of bad stress could be felt in your body and mind.
While the exact mechanisms are not understood completely, researchers know that depression and stress can be expressed as physical illness and pain. It's a complicated process, but here's an analogy that may help.
It's better to compare our bodies to a pressure cooker. It works effectively only if it can release its steam. Otherwise, the pressure will continue to build until the lid blows off. Now, imagine that although the cooker is already under pressure, you try to apply more pressure to keep the lid on. When the container cannot hold in all the pressure anymore, it breaks at its weakest point.
The same process happens to the body whenever we are nervous. Indeed, stress-related illness is most likely to show where our body is already weakened.
Individuals who are under stress and not able to "vent" their emotions or try to "keep it all in" will reach an emotional breaking point eventually. It might manifest as situational depression or trigger an episode of major depression.
In retrospect, you might realize there were some warning clues that such a break was coming, especially in terms of the physical symptoms you experience.
For instance, if your neck has always been your physical weakness, you might find your pain incline when you are stressed. Back pain, headaches, and stomach trouble are other common ways that stress might take up residence in your body.
How Stress Can Make You Sick
Stress can also compromise your immunity. Some individuals find that when they are stressed, they're more likely to catch a cold or the flu. They might also get more infections or take longer to feel better.
Researchers think that stress can result in illness and physical symptoms through the release of certain chemicals in the body, including adrenaline and cortisol, which might lead to inflammation.
These chemicals are an essential part of the body's "flight or fight" response to stress and can be very beneficial. However, if the body has high amounts or continuously releases them over an extended period, these chemicals may do more harm than good.
When you go to your doctor with physical symptoms, they will look first for a physical explanation for your pain. If there is no apparent physical reason that they may quickly test for, coming up with a diagnosis and plan of treatment might be tricky.
In these situations, individuals may feel like their doctor is not taking their symptoms seriously, thinks that it's "all in their head" or made up by the patients.
When your doctor can't find an apparent physical cause for your pain (such as an infection or an injury), they usually ask you about how you feel emotionally. The hope is that if a source of stress may be identified, it can be treated (just as you could get treated for an illness or injury).
When doctors ask about stress in your life, they do not mean that your pain is fake or not real. Symptoms related to stress that you feel in your body are genuine; they are just caused by various mechanisms that say if you broke a bone.
Your doctor might want you to talk to a mental health professional, but that's not to say that your physical symptoms only need psychological therapy. It is crucial to learn how to manage stress effectively, but that is often a process and may take time. In the meantime, you have to treat your physical pain and other symptoms.
For instance, if you have pain in your neck, learning to deal with stressful triggers can certainly help avoid from happening—but the pain is not only in your mind.
While it may start in your brain, stress can cause a cascade of chemicals in your body that makes inflammation in the muscles of your neck, which in turn causes you pain. You might need anti-inflammatory medications or another kind of treatment, such as massage and physical therapy, to control your pain.
Another helpful analogy is to think of psychosomatic sickness as a flooded river that occurs after a dam breaks. The most significant step for avoiding more flooding is to fix the dam. However, it's also a necessity to handle the flooding that's already occurred while the dam is being repaired.
Once you know how to identify the time when you are stressed and have recognized sources of anxiety in your life, the next step is to learn to deal with mechanisms. One of the most critical points you need to remember is expressing your feelings without any fear.
Like a pressure cooker, stress that is pent up in your body will come out one way or another. The best and healthiest thing you can do is to develop a managed approach to "vent" rather than letting stress find a weak point and explode.
As you're trying to cope with these mechanisms for addressing stress, check to see if you have been using any unhealthy coping way, such as overusing alcohol.
There are innumerable ways for healthy coping. It's just a matter of finding what is better for you. Here are a few ideas to help you get started:
- Confide in a friend.
- Learn relaxation techniques.
- Join a support group.
- Be honest with others and yourself.
- Explore fun new ways to deal with stress.
- Make time for leisure activities you enjoy.
- Take a break if you're in a stressful condition.
- Be on a balanced diet, get exercise regularly, and create a calming sleep space.
- Do something nice for somebody and be sure to do nice things for yourself, too.
- Let go of grudges, ways of thinking, or relationships that are not healthy or helpful for you.
- Try herbal supplements for stress or stress-fighting herbal tea.
Remember that everyone controls stress in their own way. Two individuals in the same stressful condition will react very differently. Once you understand the unique way stress affects you (both physically and emotionally), you can work on developing effective and healthy ways to manage it.
The last issue which is worth mentioning about dealing with the physical influences of stress is your courage and willingness to ignore or let go of what is not beneficial for you. Undoubtedly, it might be difficult at times, but your physical and mental health is much more important. You may have to face some realities that are tough for you to confront. Stop thinking about the annoying matters and regretting your past. Take life easy to feel much better than before. If you give up control in some parts of your life or try not to expect perfection all the time, your stress level will be lessened gradually. Set realistic expectations for yourself and then try your best to achieve your favorable goals without pressurizing yourself. As you get to know more about the sources causing stress in your life, you will be able to manage all situations easily.