This paper deals with analytical and numerical modelling of the internal stress generated in argillaceous rocks during humidification/desiccation processes, which is an essential issue for damage study. This local stress field arises from two mechanisms: (i) complex interactions between free swelling/shrinking clay matrix and non-strained inclusions of carbonate and quartz and (ii) a self-restraint effect induced by the moisture gradient during the transient moisture exchange process. The inclusion–matrix interaction is investigated in different cases. Firstly, the analytical solution of the stress around a cylindrical inclusion embedded in an infinite swelling matrix is derived: The inclusion would suffer tension (compression) under humidification (desiccation), and the resulting cracking patterns are discussed. Then, the problem of two inclusions with different distances in an infinite swelling matrix is considered, and it is shown that the local stress around an inclusion will be perturbed and amplified by neighbouring inclusions. Finally, an inclusion outcropping at the free surface of a swelling matrix is modelled as to investigate the effect of free surface: The inclusion–matrix interface undergoes shear stresses of which the maximum is found at the free surface. In addition to the inclusion–matrix interaction, the self-restraint effect is investigated: The induced stress is maximal at the beginning of humidification/desiccation processes and vanishes gradually with time. The quantity of the self-restraint stress is strongly controlled by the hydric loading rate. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.