The psychosomatic theory of bronchial asthma

Psychother Psychosom. 1979;31(1-4):38-48. doi: 10.1159/000287312.


The author discusses the development of the psychosomatic asthma theory as a paradigm of theory formation in psychomatic medicine. The first formulation of the theory was based on clinical and psychiatric observations. It was tested by psychological, physiological and experimental methods and as a result was reformulated and extended. In its present form it regards asthmatic breathing as a reaction of a predisposed personality structure (partly hereditary, partly acquired during a youth situation in which overprotection by a domineering parent played a large role), to an ambivalent conflict with a key figure. The resulting frustration is not acted out by aggressive, flight, or depressive behaviour, but inhibited; thereby the motoric and verbal discharges are displaced into (substituted by) a respiratory behaviour pattern, which is characterised by an abnormally forceful contraction of the abdominal muscles during the expiration. The resulting high intraabdominal pressure is transmitted into the thorax where it pushes the posterior membranaceous wall of the trachea and large bronchi forward into the lumen and thus produces a long stretched obstruction of the large airways. The passage of the air through the compressed large air passages under high pressure and low velocity is the mechanism which causes the typical wheeze and the other manifestations of the asthmatic airway obstruction. A hypothesis is suggested for the ways in which this psychoneurogenic respiratory behaviour contributes to the so-called bronchial hyper-reactivity and the secondary development of allergies.

MeSH terms

  • Asthma / etiology
  • Asthma / immunology
  • Asthma / psychology*
  • Asthma, Exercise-Induced
  • Humans
  • Hyperventilation / complications
  • Personality
  • Pressure
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders*
  • Respiration