Psychological stress has physiological effects and is implicated in causing or contributing to psychiatric disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychological stress also aggravates diseases like high blood pressure and heart disease.
However, psychological stress has not been shown to cause schizophrenia. This statement doesn’t make sense to many people familiar with schizophrenia. How can it be true?
For one thing, schizophrenia does not become more common after psychological traumas like war, natural disaster or concentration camp imprisonment.
People’s lives are often filled with loss during the time leading up to the first psychotic episode. However, those losses (like relationships, jobs, school, accidents, etc) were often the result of early-onset symptoms including suspicion, memory disturbance, withdrawal, and loss of motivation.
Being raised in a family with schizophrenia greatly increases the stress and likelihood of abuse and trauma, and children from these homes are more likely to develop the illness themselves. However, the genetic contribution, rather than the psychological stress, explains most of the rate of schizophrenia in children from these families.
It is certainly possible to look in the history of many people with schizophrenia and find past trauma, but many more people with schizophrenia came from loving, supporting homes. One of the many tragedies of schizophrenia is the blame that well meaning people often assign to parents already heartbroken by the illness of their beloved child.
Stress does play a significant role in the control of the illness, however. People with schizophrenia become very sensitive to stress and change. Psychological stress alone can be enough to trigger an episode. Developing and maintaining a routine is one of the most important aspects of avoiding relapse.