What is Somatic Symptom Disorder?
Somatic symptom disorder is a condition in which someone feels severely anxious and/or is intensely focused on physical symptoms. The individual may have trouble getting through day-to-day life because of their preoccupation with physical symptoms. Generally speaking, somatic symptom disorder develops in individuals before the age of 30.
Somatic symptom disorder often causes overwhelming thoughts, emotions, and actions pertaining to the perceived physical symptoms. A physical cause for the symptoms may not be found after medical tests and analysis.
While somatic symptom disorder is characterized by an anxious response to physical symptoms, the level of anxiety felt is typically not in relation to the actual severity of the symptoms. While the symptoms may or may not be rooted in reality, the person’s reaction to the symptoms may be abnormal and exaggerated. Affirmation of good health is often ineffective in curbing anxiety in individuals with somatic symptom disorder.
Signs of Somatic Symptom Disorder
Signs of somatic symptom disorder mainly involve physical symptoms and the thoughts and behaviors that surround them. These thoughts and behaviors are generally anxious in nature and may include:
- Persistent fear over the potential for illness
- Fear surrounding the severity of symptoms
- Interpreting regular physical feelings as symptoms of severe illness or as dangerous
- Fear that any physical exertion or activity will cause bodily harm or damage
- Obsessively checking for signs of illness or bodily abnormalities
- Debilitation from a medical condition that’s more severe than what’s usual
- Increased sensitivity to medication side effects
- Showing no change after medical treatment
These fears and anxieties are typically not backed by medical evidence and may persist even after a doctor provides assurance that the symptoms are normal or benign.
Physical symptoms of somatic symptom disorder may include:
- Pain that may not be proportionate to the actual severity of the symptom
- Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
- General physical weakness
How is Somatic Symptom Disorder Treated?
Psychotherapy is the main treatment method for somatic symptom disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular can help target the thoughts and habits that can lead to somatic symptom disorder. By recognizing and understanding these thoughts and habits, you and your therapist may work to develop new, healthy thought patterns that counteract the preoccupation with medical concerns, among other symptoms.
Other specific concerns of somatic symptom disorder that may be helped by cognitive behavioral therapy include:
- Improve day-to-day functioning
- Lessen avoidance behaviors stemming from health-related fears
- Improve the ability to cope with symptoms
- Learn and practice effective stress-management tactics
- Recognize and manage other mental concerns like depression and anxiety
If somatic symptom disorder is accompanied by an underlying mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or agoraphobia, medications may be prescribed for treatment.