Why the Stress-Disease Connection Matters and How to Respond


Am Fam Physician. 2020 May 15;101(10):585-586.

Family physicians are experts in caring for patients with chronic diseases and recognizing how stress impacts health. These skills naturally complement one another, as attested by research into the connection between chronic disease and stress. Stressors often include adverse childhood experiences, which are traumatic events or chronic stressors experienced in childhood, such as physical or sexual abuse, witnessed domestic violence, loss or incarceration of a parent, and poverty.1 A history of adverse childhood experiences correlates with the development of diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer.2,3 Stress in adulthood can precipitate or exacerbate mood disorders, functional gastrointestinal disorders, and chronic pelvic pain.46 When we make the stress-disease connection for our patients, they can benefit greatly from our compassionate support.

Identifying past or present stressors is an important first step that can be challenging for physicians because they must actively engage patients who are often hesitant to share these details.3 Physicians may be concerned about the time involved in asking these questions.7  Having a high index of suspicion is key, as is a willingness to gently explore the details of our patients' lives. This process does not have to be time-consuming, and the time spent is often justified by addressing important contributors to our patients' illnesses. The BATHE technique (i.e., inquiring about a patient's background, how it affects them, what troubles them most, what helps them handle it, and providing an empathetic response) is one way to explore these issues and typically takes less than five minutes (Table 1).7

BATHE Technique for Addressing Health Risk Behavior

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Tools for assessing current and past stressors can augment patient histories and can easily be incorporated into office workflows. The American Academy of Family Physicians' EveryONE Project includes screening tools for a wide range of social determinants of health, including food insecurity and financial strain.8 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a toolkit to screen for intimate partner violence.9 The American Academy of Pediatrics' Resilience Project has tools to screen children, adolescents, and parents for adverse childhood experiences. 10 Once we identify issues of concern, we can work with patients to see which next steps, if any, they would like to pursue. A supportive ear may be all some patients want. For those interested in more support, we do not have to solve these challenges alone, but we do need to know where to refer patients in our communities. The Aunt Bertha website (https://www.auntbertha.com) is one starting point that provides a comprehensive list of resources by zip code for mental health care, housing assistance, legal aid, and more.

Emotional health and physical health are deeply intertwined, and patients who have experienced difficult events or persistent stressors may struggle to cope in a healthy way. Helping our patients recognize the connection between physical and mental well-being allows us to validate patients' underlying feelings and promote healthier coping practices. Meeting with a counselor, choosing a positive outlook, engaging in relaxation techniques, and making healthy lifestyle choices can boost resilience and wellness.11 Discussion of this mind-body connection should not be confused with dismissing patients' symptoms as being “all in their head.” Instead, this connection is ideally a path to patient empowerment. When patients believe they are heard and are provided with resources to address their challenges, meaningful healing may be more likely to occur.

A deeper understanding of these stressors may also strengthen our relationships and help us to maintain positive regard for patients who may be among our most challenging to treat. If we are to fully care for the whole person as family physicians, then responding to the stressors our patients face is critical to providing holistic, compassionate, and effective care.

Editor's Note: Dr. Middleton is a contributing editor for AFP.

Address correspondence to Jennifer L. Middleton, MD, MPH, at jennifer.mton@gmail.com. Reprints are not available from the author.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.


show all references

1. American Academy of Family Physicians. Adverse childhood experiences. Accessed December 9, 2019. https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/adversechildhood-experiences.html...

2. Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, et al. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. Am J Prev Med. 1998;14(4):245–258.

3. Goodfellow A, Bone C, Gelberg L. They didn't believe her pain: my education in interpersonal violence. Ann Fam Med. 2018;16(4):361–363. Accessed February 19, 2020. http://www.annfammed.org/content/16/4/361.full

4. Haftgoli N, Favrat B, Verdon F, et al. Patients presenting with somatic complaints in general practice: depression, anxiety and somatoform disorders are frequent and associated with psychosocial stressors. BMC Fam Pract. 2010;11:67.

5. Wilkinson JM, Cozine EW, Loftus CG. Gas, bloating, and belching: approach to evaluation and management. Am Fam Physician. 2019;99(5):301–309. Accessed January 22, 2020. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2019/0301/p301.html

6. Speer LM, Mushkbar S, Erbele T. Chronic pelvic pain in women. Am Fam Physician. 2016;93(5):380–387. Accessed January 22, 2020. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2016/0301/p380.html

7. Searight HR. Counseling patients in primar y care: evidence-based strategies. Am Fam Physician. 2018;98(12):719–728. Accessed January 22, 2020. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2018/1215/p719.html

8. American Academy of Family Physicians. The EveryONE Project toolkit. Accessed October 17, 2019. https://www.aafp.org/patient-care/social-determinants-of-health/everyone-project/eop-tools.html

9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Intimate partner violence and sexual violence victimization assessment instruments for use in healthcare settings. Accessed October 17, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/ipv/ipvandsvscreening.pdf

10. American Academy of Pediatrics. The Resilience Project. Accessed October 17, 2019. https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/resilience/

11. Familydoctor.org. Mind/body connection: how your emotions affect your health. Accessed December 9, 2019. https://familydoctor.org/mindbody-connection-how-your-emotions-affect-your-health/



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