Is Physical Illness Just Physical?

By Amy Kim, Psy.D.

Many people today are suffering from a number of illnesses that can cause or contribute to anxiety or depression. There are many symptoms for which people have difficulty finding the right answers, much less any solutions. This can have an emotional and psychological impact on a person, which then can exacerbate the existing physical distress. Worsening illness can then make a person feel even more anxious, depressed or discouraged from healing and a feedback loop can get created which can look like:


Physical symptom(s)—> Anxiety/Depression—>Worsening physical symptom(s)—>More anxiety/depression


For instance, let’s say that a person is suffering from the increasingly common problem of digestive discomfort and pain. These symptoms can cause a person to have low energy, feel down, not want to do things that they normally want to do, and generally not feel good. They may feel unwell after eating a meal or have anxiety about what foods to eat out of fear that their symptoms could get worse. This worry about food choices or not having the energy to do things can negatively affect their social life and relationships. Loved ones may not understand what they’re going through and feel helpless and/or assume that the person is “making it up” or exaggerating their suffering, leaving the person feeling misunderstood and isolated. Further, not knowing which foods contribute to their problems or what to do to help their symptoms can lead to feelings of defeat or hopelessness.

It’s not uncommon for people to seek help from various doctors, practitioners and healers and not get any relief, and persistent symptoms are often accompanied by myriad behavioral and emotional effects that leave a person feeling worse. In therapy, a person can come to understand the thought processes, feelings and behaviors surrounding physical symptoms that can make more difficult an already painful situation. There are techniques and strategies that one can implement to reduce the stress of living with chronic symptoms or illness. Finally, lifestyle factors can be addressed to promote the mind-body-emotional healing process that is part of recovering from physical illness. Bodily symptoms are often thought to exist in a vacuum, somehow separate from emotions and behaviors but this is simply not the case – our bodies do not exist disconnected from our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Because they are interrelated, it’s important that all aspects are given attention in order for true healing to take place.