When I was 13 years old, my mother was diagnosed with a non-aggressive form of Breast Cancer. At the time, I did not see the magnitude of the sickness. Instead, I simply accepted her explanation – that the reason she became ill was due to the amount of stress she was putting herself through. As a college student, I felt this explanation was a bit far-fetched. So, I looked into it.
Through my research, I never found a specific correlation or causation between a person’s stress levels and their diagnosis of cancer. However, I did find a plethora of illnesses that manifest themselves through stress, anxiety and general thoughts.
Hypochondria, a disorder in which people obsessively perceive themselves as having a serious medical condition, despite the condition being undiagnosed, is the first way in which stress shows connections to actual illnesses. Hypochondriacs worry about any physical or psychological symptoms they detect with their body, ignoring how severe or minor the symptom may or may not be, for a period of over six months. They are even convinced that they have, or are about to be diagnosed with, a serious illness. Hypochondriacs may still be alarmed over their supposed illness even after a physician has evaluated a person.
Conversion disorder, a mental condition in which a person suffers from an actual physical symptom (e.g., blindness, paralysis, or other neurological symptoms) that cannot be explained by an evaluation from a medical doctor or a physician. While the specific cause of conversion disorder has not yet been found, researchers believe that it develops as a way for the brain to deal with an emotional strife. It is triggered by stressful situations, with symptoms developing suddenly shortly after. For example, a person falling off of a bike may feel paralysis in their arm despite not being injured.
Body dysmorphic disorder, a disorder in which a person spends an abundant amount of time worried or concerned about a perceived physical defect in their appearance. With this disorder, a person may have a mild physical defect, but the concern is not proportional to the defect. People with body dysmorphic disorder use makeup to conceal, or even consult a cosmetic surgeon to have their defect corrected. Because body dysmorphia has appeared in individuals suffering from eating disorders, there has been much discussion as to whether body dysmorphic disorder is related to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
Pain disorder, similarly to conversion disorder, is where a person has persistent pain not attributable to a physical disorder. The full, scientific title of the disorder is psychogenic pain disorder – a title that highlights the psychological issues associated with the disorder. In order to diagnose an individual with this disorder, all other causes or sources of their pain must be debunked.
Somatization is when physical symptoms are caused by psychological or emotional factors. For instance, many people have occasional headaches caused by mental stress. However, the mind is not causing an illness in actuality. Instead, the physical symptoms of the illness are imagined.
All of the disorders mentioned above fall under the category of somatoform disorders, an extreme version of the somatization disorder. Because they fall under the same umbrella, all of the disorders are treatable through methods that range from some form of therapy (e.g., talk therapy, psychotherapy, etc.) to certain medications.
To circle back to my mother’s claim, I can now say with confidence that there is no evidence of stress levels causing cancer. But, stress does play a dangerous role in the formation of other illnesses that can impact people in tangible and detectable ways.
Editor: Briana Fannin