Gerry suddenly clutched at his chest. His heart was racing, and he could barely breathe. Ten minutes after the call to 911, he was on his way to the nearest emergency room in an ambulance. There an electrocardiogram and blood tests provided the big shock: Gerry hadn't suffered a heart attack at all. The hospital doctor reassured him: Physically, you are fine. Your problems are psychological in origin.
Gerry's experience is not unusual. For at least a quarter of all patients who enter hospitals with suspected heart attacks, physicians can find no physical cause for their symptoms. But it is a mistake to dismiss such occurrences as just psychosomatic, because that minimizes the importance of the mind's effects on the body's well-being. Studies in psychosomatics, the area of medicine that deals with diseases and complaints that are at least partly psychologically based, find that one everyday aspect of modern life stands out in a startling variety of physical ailments: stress. [For a list of related ills, see box on page 71.] Worse, extreme emotional distress--caused by the death of a spouse, a furious quarrel, a natural disaster such as an earthquake, even looming heavy deadlines at work--can trigger a real heart attack in a person who is already at risk.