Seeking medical care in response to symptoms and life stress

Psychosom Med. 1995 Jan-Feb;57(1):37-47. doi: 10.1097/00006842-199501000-00006.


Analyses tested the following contrasting hypotheses: a) The occurrence of a new symptom in the presence of ongoing life stress increases the attribution of symptoms to illness and increases the use of health care; b) new symptoms occurring in the presence of ongoing life stress are attributed to stressors if they are ambiguous indicators of illness, and they are unlikely to motivate care-seeking if the stressor, i.e., the perceived cause, is of recent onset. The 43-to-92-year old subjects in this longitudinal study were less likely to seek care for the ambiguous symptoms they experienced during the previous week if there was a concurrent life stressor that began during the previous 3 weeks; these symptoms were attributed to stress rather than to illness, and subjects tolerated the emotional distress caused by the combination of a stressor and an ambiguous symptom. Subjects were less willing to tolerate the combined distress of an ambiguous symptom and a concurrent life stressor if the stressor onset was not recent; under such conditions, subjects were more likely to seek health care. Current life stressors did not affect care-seeking for symptoms that were clear signs of disease; these symptoms were readily identified as health threats in need of medical attention. The findings contribute to a better theoretical understanding of how individuals perceive their physical states and how they cope with stress. Practical implications of these findings for increasing efficient use of health care services are also discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attitude to Health
  • Female
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care*
  • Personality Assessment
  • Primary Health Care
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / psychology*
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology*