Psychosomatic Illness: Emotions and the Body

25 August, 2020
Stress and anxiety are both mental factors that can actually lead to physical ailments in the body. This is why it's important to learn to manage them properly and avoid health problems.

The link between the mind and body is extremely strong and powerful. Yet many of us completely ignore our emotional world in our day to day life. Believe it or not, the stuff that we hold onto inside can make us sick.

Psychosomatic (the link between psychology and biology, mind and body) illness has been researched for years. Journals like the Journal of Psychosomatic Research regularly publish interesting insights about the issue.

Also, organizations like the American Psychosomatic Society report the latest discoveries on the link between our biology and emotions. Today, we want to show you some of the basic elements of this concept, because it’s worth knowing more about it.

Negative emotions, like stress and anxiety, that we often bottle up throughout our lives can have serious side effects on the body, potentially leading to a psychosomatic illness.

Bottling things up causes emotional blockages and damage to the body

Not long ago, there was an interesting and popular TED (technology, entertainment, and design) talk where a psychologist surprised the audience with a glass of water in her hand.

The audience immediately thought that she was going to talk about the classic concept of whether the glass is half full or half empty. But, she actually went in another direction. She addressed the audience and asked: “How much do you think this glass of water weighs?”

A woman holding a glass of water.

The audience gave many different responses, and many of them were close. However, this expert in emotional psychology gave an explanation that went much deeper.

  • How heavy the water feels will depend on how long you have to hold it.
  • Holding a glass of water for 5 minutes is nothing. But if you had to hold it for 2 hours, your arm would get tired and you’d eventually have to give up.
  • The same thing happens with stress. This emotion doesn’t cause major effects over a short period of time. But if it goes on for a period of weeks and months, it can make you sick.

Discover: Relieve stress with stone art therapy

What are psychosomatic illnesses?

Imagine that you have a coworker who’s always talking about you behind your back. It’s not a one-time thing, but has been happening for a while, and has now become common and is creating a negative work environment.

If you keep that inside for months, those repressed emotions will have negative consequences for your health (it’s like holding the glass with your arm raised for months).

A psychosomatic illness is when the mind (psyche) causes changes in the body (soma). This is so common that many believe that mental issues like stress and anxiety can even aggravate pre-existing physical illnesses.

  • For example, there’s a theory that disorders like psoriasis, eczema, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and many types of heart disease can get worse as a result of psychosomatic problems like stress and anxiety.
  • You should also keep in mind that this varies from person to person. Everyone handles stress differently.
Psychosomatic illnesses can build up over time.

The physical effects of holding things inside

When something is bothering you and you don’t know how to deal with it properly, your brain transforms it into a negative emotion that has physical consequences. For example, it increases the nerve activity and will release neurotransmitters like adrenaline.

This neurotransmitter, along with cortisol (which it will also release), can cause the following problems:

  • Dry mouth
  • Tremors
  • Perspiration
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Feeling sick (nausea)
  • Increased heart rate
  • Emotional blockages. The stress and anxiety affect certain cells in the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to illness.

Discover: 6 ways to control stress and anxiety without drugs

How do you treat a psychosomatic illness?

A therapist and a patient.

Because most of us have never received any training in emotional management (which really should be taught in schools), you should try to keep some things in mind:

  • Be assertive: say what is bothering you in the moment, not later on when the time has passed.
  • Keeping things bottled up can make you sick. This is something we all need to realize. Negative emotions are dangerous for your health and need to be properly managed.
  • Practice emotional sincerity every day with respect and assertiveness. Remember that setting boundaries on what you will tolerate is a fundamental right and no one is ever being selfish by saying they’ve had enough.
  • Dedicate one or two hours a day to time for yourself. Make yourself a priority, take a walk, enjoy your favorite hobbies, or simply take advantage of this time alone to be with your thoughts.

Remember to always seek medical advice for any discomfort, like upset digestion, tachycardia or dizziness to get these symptoms under control.

  • Gasparino, Alba. (2009). Psicosomática y Adolescencia. Clínica y Salud20(3), 281-289. Recuperado en 01 de enero de 2019, de http://scielo.isciii.es/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&;pid=S1130-52742009000300009&lng=es&tlng=es.
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  • Winnicott, D. (2010). El trastorno psicosomático En Exploraciones psicoanalíticas, Tomo I. Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidós.
  • Berrocal, Carmen, Fava, Giovanni A., & Sonino, Nicoletta. (2016). Contribuciones de la Medicina Psicosomática a la Medicina Clínica y Preventiva. Anales de Psicología, 32(3), 828-836. https://dx.doi.org/10.6018/analesps.32.3.219801
  • Satsangi AK, Brugnoli MP. Anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms in palliative care: from neuro-psychobiological response to stress, to symptoms’ management with clinical hypnosis and meditative states. Ann Palliat Med. 2018;7(1):75‐111. doi:10.21037/apm.2017.07.01