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Can your mind trick you into feeling symptoms?

The mind is powerful – so powerful that it can make us feel physical symptoms that may not really exist. This phenomenon, known as psychosomatic symptoms, is more common than many people realize. In this article, we’ll explore how the mind can trick the body, the science behind it, and when to seek medical care for symptoms that may be “all in your head.”

What are psychosomatic symptoms?

Psychosomatic symptoms are physical symptoms that are caused by mental factors, such as stress and anxiety. For example, someone who is stressed about an upcoming work presentation may develop a headache or upset stomach related to that stress. However, there is no underlying physical cause for those symptoms – they are created by the mind.

Some common psychosomatic symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Back pain
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Skin rashes

These symptoms are real and can be extremely uncomfortable. However, medical tests fail to show any physical issue that would cause the symptoms. They are instead the manifestation of mental and emotional distress.

What causes psychosomatic symptoms?

Research shows that several factors can contribute to someone developing psychosomatic symptoms:

  • Stress – Stress causes changes in brain chemistry that can lead to physical symptoms. Things like work stress, relationship issues, financial problems, trauma, and grief can trigger psychosomatic symptoms.
  • Anxiety – Anxiety disorders are strongly associated with psychosomatic symptoms. The constant worry and tension felt with anxiety can cause real physical symptoms.
  • Depression – Depressed individuals commonly have unexplained physical complaints such as back pain, headaches, stomach issues, and fatigue.
  • Personality traits – People with type “A” personalities and perfectionistic tendencies seem to be more prone to psychosomatic symptoms.
  • Learned behavior – Children may develop psychosomatic symptoms after observing the behavior in a parent. Expressing distress through physical ailments can become a habit.

How does the mind create physical symptoms?

There are a few key ways the mind is able to conjure up psychosomatic symptoms that feel quite real:

  • The stress response – Stress triggers the “fight or flight” response, causing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to surge through the body. This can lead to temporary physical changes like spikes in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration.
  • Muscle tension – When we are stressed and anxious, we tend to tense our muscles without even realizing it. This can lead to tension headaches, back pain, and neck pain.
  • Hypervigilance – People who are highly anxious tend to be hyper-focused on any small ache, pain, or discomfort in their body. This hypervigilance amplifies normal bodily sensations into symptoms.
  • Changes in blood flow – Stress and emotions influence blood flow and circulation. More blood flow can make us feel warm or flushed, while constricted blood vessels can leave us feeling faint.

When are symptoms “all in your head?”

It can be challenging to differentiate between psychosomatic symptoms and symptoms of an underlying medical issue. As a general rule of thumb, symptoms that are primarily psychosomatic will have these characteristics:

  • No abnormality shows up on medical tests
  • Symptoms are closely tied to stressful events
  • Symptoms tend to come and go
  • Symptoms improve when stress is reduced
  • No physical damage is occurring in the body

However, just because symptoms are “in your head” does not make them any less real. The mind’s effect on the body is powerful, and psychosomatic symptoms can be truly incapacitating for those experiencing them.

Examples of psychosomatic symptoms

Here are some real-world examples of how mental and emotional factors can produce physical symptoms:

Stomach pain from test anxiety

Leading up to a big exam, a student develops intense, crampy stomach pains and diarrhea, making them unable to focus on studying. Medical exams show nothing wrong, but the symptoms fade after the test is over. The stomach issues were a manifestation of “butterflies” and anxiety around the exam.

Shortness of breath from panic

A man suddenly develops difficulty breathing and chest tightness while giving a presentation at work. He is taken to the ER and thoroughly evaluated, but tests find no underlying lung or heart issue causing his symptoms. His shortness of breath was caused by a panic attack triggered by speaking in front of his colleagues.

Headaches from repressed anger

A woman who struggles to express anger starts having frequent migraines. She feels constant tension in her shoulders and jaw. Her doctor determines the source of her headaches stems from muscle tension caused by unexpressed emotion, rather than any neurological issue.

Rash from relationship stress

A man breaks out in a red itchy rash across his back after having repeated arguments with his wife. When his relationship improves, the unexplained rash disappears. Doctors determine his skin issues were linked to the emotional strain he felt during conflict.

When to seek medical attention

While emotional strain can cause real physical symptoms, it’s also important to recognize when medical evaluation is needed. Seek prompt medical attention if you experience:

  • Symptoms that do not improve when stress is reduced
  • Ongoing or worsening symptoms
  • Symptoms that interfere with daily life
  • Shortness of breath or chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness, weakness, or fainting
  • Numbness or paralysis

While doctors may ultimately determine symptoms are psychosomatic in nature, they still need to rule out potentially dangerous medical conditions. Don’t write symptoms off as just stress without seeking evaluation.

Treating psychosomatic symptoms

For symptoms with a psychosomatic source, working to reduce emotional strain and stress is the key. Treatment may include:

  • Psychotherapy – Counseling helps people find healthy ways to cope with and express difficult emotions. Therapy provides tools to reduce stress.
  • Medications – Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may be used in some cases to help control emotional symptoms contributing to physical symptoms.
  • Relaxation techniques – Practices like meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation can help calm the mind and body.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT helps identify and change unhealthy thought patterns that interfere with symptom management.
  • Biofeedback – Uses feedback on physical responses like muscle tension, heart rate, and breathing to gain control over the body.

Learning to recognize and manage psychosomatic symptoms takes time. But with professional treatment, people can successfully control troublesome symptoms triggered by their mind.


Psychosomatic symptoms are more widespread than many people recognize. Stress, anxiety, depression, and learned behaviors can all make us feel “real” physical symptoms with no underlying medical cause. Headaches, stomach upset, back pain, rashes, and more can all be manifestations of mental strain.

While the mind can trick us, psychosomatic symptoms should never be ignored. Seek medical care for any concerning or persistent symptoms to rule out illness. With professional help to reduce emotional overload, most people can get their bothersome physical symptoms under control.