Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Health
23 September 2020

How life’s stresses can manifest themselves into physical symptoms

One of my patients came to realise the extent to which his emotional life was affecting his body. 

By Phil Whitaker

Adam’s tummy was playing up. “It’s been going on for weeks,” he told me. “My girlfriend said enough was enough.”

It didn’t sound too spectacular: his stools had gone a bit loose, but he was only going two or three times a day and it wasn’t exactly what he would call diarrhoea. Certainly no sign of blood. And while he had lost interest in food, he didn’t feel nauseous. The further I questioned him, the more symptoms he mentioned: headaches occasionally, sleep rather restless, energy levels low, and from time to time he had this overwhelming urge to fill his lungs with air.

There’s probably a law of medicine that states that the further into a patient’s history you get without the first idea of what the diagnosis might be, the more likely it is the diagnosis will ultimately prove to be psychosocial – adverse life circumstances being expressed in a physical way. And there is a “big three” of factors that account for the vast bulk of such cases: relationships, work and money.

When I started exploring what was happening in Adam’s life, though, everything seemed well. His job as a hospital maintenance electrician was secure. He enjoyed the role and liked the people he worked with. He and his partner were getting along. More than that, in fact: they were expecting their first child in two months’ time. And apart from a mortgage on their home, they had no significant debt or financial concerns. Even lockdown had left him largely unscathed. In fact, he’d loved it during the early summer, when he’d been able to go cycling on virtually traffic-free roads.

I have learned, when suspecting psychosocial illness, not to be distracted by picture-postcard accounts of life. We all put a gloss on things with strangers; even with family and close friends. Many people are unaware of how their emotional life affects their body, so won’t see the relevance to admitting difficulties when discussing what seems to be a problem with their physical health.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

What struck me in Adam’s account was his partner’s pregnancy. This was the one thing that represented change. “How do you feel about the baby?” I asked. But even there, too, he declared himself to be delighted. It had been planned, and they were both looking forward to becoming parents.

My last thought was bereavement, not necessarily a recent one. Often when we approach the anniversary of a loved one’s death – and it may have happened years ago – the grief resurfaces. But no, Adam said. There was no one.

I’d taken a wrong turn; these amorphous symptoms must have a biological basis that I was going to have to investigate. I was about to invite him in for examination, and to do some blood and stool tests, when he suddenly said: “Well, there was my old man.”

Adam explained that his father had left when he was still a baby, and he had never seen him again. Adam had recently managed to trace his whereabouts, only to discover that he’d died eight months previously. “But it can’t be that, right? I never even knew him.”

“When did you find out he’d died?” I asked.

“A few weeks back.”         

“When all these symptoms started?”

Adam agreed.

He hadn’t known why he’d decided, in his mid-twenties, suddenly to go searching for his dad. I was explaining how impending parenthood stirs long-forgotten childhood experiences. How he wasn’t grieving his dad as a person, but was grieving the loss of the idea of ever having a dad himself, and a granddad for his baby when it came.

Somewhere in among my words, I heard Adam sobbing at the other end of the phone. When he could talk again, he said he could see all that. Within two days his physical symptoms had gone, now he was able to mourn.