Somatic Symptoms Evoked by Exam Stress in University Students: The Role of Alexithymia, Neuroticism, Anxiety and DepressionReportar como inadecuado

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The etiology of somatization is incompletely understood, but could be elucidated by models of psychosocial stress. Academic exam stress has effectively been applied as a naturalistic stress model, however its effect on somatization symptoms according to ICD-10 and DSM-IV criteria has not been reported so far. Baseline associations between somatization and personality traits, such as alexithymia, have been studied exhaustively. Nevertheless, it is largely unknown if personality traits have an explanatory value for stress induced somatization.


This longitudinal, quasi-experimental study assessed the effects of university exams on somatization — and the reversal of effects after an exam-free period. Repeated-observations were obtained within 150 students, measuring symptom intensity before, during and after an exam period, according to the Screening for Somatoform Symptoms 7-day SOMS-7d. Additionally, self-reports on health status were used to differentiate between medically explained and medically unexplained symptoms. Alexithymia, neuroticism, trait-anxiety and baseline depression were surveyed using the Toronto-Alexithymia Scale TAS-20, the Big-Five Personality Interview NEO-FFI, the State Trait Anxiety Inventory STAI and Beck’s Depression Inventory BDI-II. These traits were competitively tested for their ability to explain somatization increases under exam stress.


Somatization significantly increased across a wide range of symptoms under exam stress, while health reports pointed towards a reduction in acute infections and injuries. Neuroticism, alexithymia, trait anxiety and depression explained variance in somatization at baseline, but only neuroticism was associated with symptom increases under exam stress.


Exam stress is an effective psychosocial stress model inducing somatization. A comprehensive quantitative description of bodily symptoms under exam stress is supplied. The results do not support the stress-alexithymia hypothesis, but favor neuroticism as a personality trait of importance for somatization.

Autor: Matthias Zunhammer , Hanna Eberle, Peter Eichhammer, Volker Busch



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