Hospital patience holding head in distress

Misery Aplenty: The Mental and Physical Illnesses Triggered by Too Much Stress

Stress causes many, many problems — both short-term and long-term. It also causes many physical and mental problems. This page presents a number of the insidious effects of stress on the mind and the body.

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.”  — Richard Carlson

Written by Murray Johannsen. I welcome connections via LinkedIn or directly on this website. And DON’T MISS OUT on insightful content on our Linkedin feeds. Themes for posts are: 21st Century Skills: What’s Needed and What’s Not; AI Savvy: Essential Skills For AI at Work; and Bootstrapping Your Dreams: Growing  Digital Business Skills.

Reduce The Impact of Stressors

Note: If your stress management techniques are not working, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. 

Psychosomatic Illness

Basically, the assumption here is that the origin of many physical diseases starts within in the mind. Not in the conscious mind, in the unconscious part. In fact, there are hundreds of physical maladies that have a psychosomatic component (Sarno, 2006, pg. 2)

I remember sitting in the class when I was getting my pharmacy degree many years ago. I called it the master bedroom because it was easy to fall asleep with your eyes open. But one day, the medicinal chemistry professor said something I never forgot.  He said, "95  percent of all cases of hypertension (high blood pressure) have no definable physical causes." In other words, your kidneys were working, you were eating a cup of salt a day, etc. (Personal Story, Murray Johannsen)

Certain types of psychological and physical conditions are very hard to deal with even with the help of an expert. These include:

  • Panic Disorders
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Social Phobias
  • Post traumatic stress disorder

For More Information check out the National Institute of Health

Unfortunately, the medical system is designed to treat the physical symptoms rather than going after the root cause of the problem, which lies somewhere in the mind.

Today, as was done in the past, the system is likely to fix the problem with drugs, something that fails to address the route cause, which is a failure to control stress.

  • Heart disease
  • Coronary Artery Disease (Atherosclerosis)
  • High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
  • Ulcers (Gastric and Peptic)
  • Back Pain
  • Headaches and Migraines
  • Ulcerative colitis
Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679) Love Sickness a.k.a. The Lovesick Girl

Facts and Stats On Mental Illness

One can assume that the mental wellness of all populations is in decline due to Covid and the associated disruption of our normal social lives and our economic well-being.

According to the Kim Foundation research on the numbers of individuals who have mental illnesses in America

  • Approximately 40 million American adults ages 18 and older, or about 18.1 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have an anxiety disorder
  • Approximately 6 million American adults ages 18 and older, or about 2.7 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have panic disorder.
  • Approximately 6.8 million American adults, or about 3.1 percent of people age 18 and over, have GAD in a given year.
  • Approximately 7.7 million American adults age 18 and older, or about 3.5 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have PTSD.

Examples of Stress Induced Death

The Wellcome Trust: Patients waiting to see the doctor, with figures representing their fears.

Engel (1971) documents 170 cases of sudden death during psychological stress, collected over a six-year period. Here are five cases.

Case (1). Pulmonary Edema

The death of a loved one An 88-year-old man, without known heart disease, became upset and excited, wringing his hands upon being told of the sudden death of his daughter. He did not cry but kept asking, “Why has this happened to me?” While talking with his son on the phone he developed acute pulmonary edema and died just as the doctor reached the house.

Case (2). Quickly Spreading Cancer

A 22-year-old girl with malignant paraganglioma had been deteriorating but was still able to take drives with her mother. On one such outing, the mother was killed when thrown from the car in an accident; the girl was not injured. Within a few hours, she lapsed into a coma and died. The autopsy showed widespread metastases but no evidence of trauma.

Case (3). Threatened Loss

The threatened loss of a loved one. A 43-year-old man died four hours after his 14-year-old son, faking a kidnap call over the phone, said “If you want to see your son alive, don’t call the cops.”

Case (4). Making a Move

A 44-year-old man found himself in a totally unbearable situation and felt forced to move to another town. But just as he was ready to make the move difficulties developed in the other town, the move was impossible. In an anguished quandary, he, nonetheless, boarded the train for the new locale. Halfway to his destination, he got out to pace the platform at a station stop. When the conductor called, “All aboard,” he felt he could neither on nor return home; he dropped dead on the spot. He was traveling with a friend, a professional person, with whom he shared his awful dilemma. The autopsy showed myocardial infarction.

Case (5).  Asthmatic Collapse

A 27-year-old asthmatic woman apparently died of cardiac standstill and did not exhibit asthma either before or during the interview. She had been reluctantly drawn into a discussion of her psychological problems, including the humiliation of seduction, an illegitimate baby, and a rape attempt by her brother. As she recounted how she had been increasingly rejected by and cut off from her family and had to quit junior college and take menial jobs only to lose them because of asthmatic attacks, she became increasingly excited, cried, hyperventilated, and finally collapsed unconscious just as she was saying, “Naturally I always lost my job and had no hope anymore to recover. That’s why I wanted to die and want to die all the time because I am no-good, no-good.”

Case (6): The Power of a Mother’s Curse

Mathis describe

A healthy, middle-aged man had spent most of his life in the shadow of his mother. Fatherless, he described her as “a wonderful lady who made all the family decisions correctly and who never met a situation she could not control.” At 31, financed by his mother, he bought a nightclub, and she helped him to run it. At 38 he married, and his wife, not surprisingly, began to resent his dependence on his mother. When he received a profitable offer to sell the nightclub, he told his mother he was considering it, and she became distraught. Finally, he decided to sell. His mother told him, “Do this, and something dire will happen to you.” Two days later he had his first asthma attack. He had no previous history of respiratory illness and had not even had a cold in ten years. The day after he closed the sale, his asthma attacks became much worse when his mother told him angrily that “something will strike you.” He now became depressed and frequently protested that he was helpless. With psychiatric help, he began to see the connection between the asthma attacks and his mother’s “curse,”; he improved greatly. His psychiatrist saw him for a minute session at 5:00 P.M. on August 23, 1960, and found him in excellent physical and mental shape. At 5:30 he called his mother to tell her that he planned to reinvest in a new business without her help. She reminded him of her curse and told him to prepare for “dire results.” At 6:35 he was found gasping for breath, cyanotic, and in a coma. He died at 6:55. Mathis, J. L. (1964). A sophisticated version of voodoo death: Report of a case. Psychosomatic Medicine.,26:104-107.

Case 7: Grief Causing Death in Monkeys

Jane Goodall described the death of Flint, a young male chimpanzee, after his mother, Flo, died (Scarf, 1973).

Flo lay down on a rock, toward the side of a stream and simply expired. She was quite old. Flint stayed near her corpse he grabbed one of her arms and tried to pull her up by the hand. The night of her death he slept close to the body, and, by the following morning, he showed signs of extreme depression. After that, no matter where he might wander off to, he kept returning to his mother’s body. It was the maggots which, at last, drove him away; he’d try to shake the maggots off her and they would swarm on to him. Finally, he stopped coming back. But he did remain in the area comprising about 50 square yards, and he wouldn’t move any further away from the place where Flo had died. And in 10 days he had lost about a third of his body weight. He also developed a strange, glazed look. At last, Flint died too; he died very close to the spot where his mother had died. In fact, the day before he had returned to sit on the very rock where Flo had lain down (by then we had removed her body and buried her). The results of the post mortem have been negative. They indicated that although he had a certain parasite load and one or two bugs, there was nothing sufficient in itself to cause death. And so the major cause of death had to be grief.

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Engel, G. L. (1971). Sudden and rapid death during psychological stress, folklore, or folk wisdom? Annuals of Internal Medicine, 74:771-782.

Mathis, J. L. (1964). A sophisticated version of voodoo death: Report of a case. Psychosomatic Medicine.,26:104-107.

Scarf, M. (1973). Goodall and chimpanzees at Yale. Times Magazine, February 18.

Sarno, John (2006). The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mind-body Disorders. Harper Books.

Rosch, Paul & Pelletier, Ken (1987). Designing Worksite Stress Management Programs. Lawrence Murphy & Schoenborn (Eds.) Stress Management in Workplace Settings. Washington D. C: U.S. H.H.S.

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