The frequency, severity, and characteristics of psychiatric illness and stressful life situations were assessed in 134 patients aged 18-60 years referred to a gastrointestinal clinic by their general practitioner. A functional disorder of the gastrointestinal tract was established in 72%. A formal psychiatric assessment in 64 randomly selected patients revealed a previous or current psychiatric disorder in 54% of the functional group and 12.5% of the organic group. Stressful life events before referral were assessed by a modification of the Bedford College methodology. Anxiety provoking life situations were found in 30%, a proportion which was not significantly different in the two groups. Psychiatric illness episodes and/or anxiety provoking situations, preceded the onset of bowel symptoms in two-thirds of the functional group, however, but in none of the organic group. Life situations alone did not appear to be associated with functional disorders unless they provoked an anxiety state.