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Is Your Partner’s Illness All In Their Head?

When a battery of medical tests for physical symptoms of illness turns up nothing conclusive, you might begin to wonder if the complaints your partner has are all in their mind. After all, if nothing can be proved medically, what other option is there?

It’s not quite that simple.

When a condition is psychosomatic, it means that the illness involves both the mind (psycho) and the body (somatic). A psychosomatic illness originates with emotional stress or damaging thought patterns, and progresses with physical symptoms, usually when a person’s immune system is compromised due to stress.

A common misconception is that a psychosomatic condition is imaginary, or “all in someone’s mind.” Actually, the physical symptoms of psychosomatic conditions are real, and should be treated like any other illness. It’s thought that maybe as much as 50% to 80% of all the complaints treated by physicians are psychosomatic in nature. Your partner is not faking it!

A more modern name for psychosomatic illness is somatoform disorder. The name was changed because of the recognition by the medical profession that these illnesses are real, even if a basis for them cannot be identified. Because of this recognition, an interdisciplinary branch of medicine called psychosomatic medicine now exists to diagnose and treat patients who have these types of disorders.

Patients who have psychosomatic illnesses often become preoccupied with their symptoms, especially when those symptoms cannot be explained. It’s frustrating and scary to not feel well and yet have all your medical test results be normal. As the partner of someone with a somatoform disorder, you might be experiencing stress and frustration, too, as well as wonder if this is something your partner is just doing for attention. Medical research says otherwise.

Common somatic illnesses include:

  • Conversion disorder: With this disorder, physical symptoms appear after a stressful event. An example is when someone loses their voice after a situation when they were afraid to speak up. The emotional fear “converts” to a physical symptom.
  • Hypochondria: A person with hypochondriasis believes that normal body functions (such as a grumbling stomach) or minor symptoms (such as a common headache) are symptoms of a very serious disorder. To a person who has hypochondriasis, a grumbling stomach may mean stomach cancer or a headache may mean a brain tumor. People with hypochondria feel that their illness is part of their identity.
  • Somatization disorder: This disorder usually involves pain and severe neurological symptoms (such as headache, fatigue), digestive symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea) or sexual symptoms (such as pain during sexual activity, loss of sexual desire, extremely painful periods in women).
  • Somatization pain disorder: Patients with this disorder experience chronic, severe pain that cannot be attributed to other medical problems. The pain limits the patient’s quality of life. It’s thought that emotional well-being affects how pain is perceived.
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD): A person with BDD becomes obsessed with a flaw in their physical appearance that is either a minor flaw or a flaw that doesn’t exist. They constantly worry about the perceived flaw, which can be any part of the body. Wrinkles, hair loss, weight gain, and size and shape of their eyes, nose, and breasts are all common concerns for people who have body dysmorphic disorder.
  • Cyberchondria: This illness was identified in recent years because of patients who would turn to medical information on the Internet to find evidence that the symptoms they were experiencing are true medical illnesses.

Further reading

The American Psychosomatic Society

Conversion disorder

Hypochondria information from MayoClinic

Somatization disorder

Somatoform pain disorder

Body dysmorphic disorder information from the Cleveland Clinic

“What Is Cyberchondria?” from Discovery Health


Is Your Partner’s Illness All In Their Head?

Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda, MS, LPCA, NCC, is a patient advocate for Women's and Children's Services at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. She is a licensed professional counselor associate and a National Certified Counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavior therapies. Her book, Loving Someone With Anxiety, will be published by New Harbinger in the spring of 2013.

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APA Reference
Thieda, K. (2011). Is Your Partner’s Illness All In Their Head?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Nov 2011
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