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.
WHEN TO SEE A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL
Mental health issues are real, common, and treatable. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 20% of those are considered serious. 17% of 6-17 year olds experience a mental health disorder. So the first thing to remember is this: You are not alone.
If you feel that you are suffering from a mental illness, and particularly if those issues are preventing you from living life to the full or feeling yourself, you may want to consider professional help which can make an enormous difference.
And to be clear, you don't need to be going through a crisis in order to justify getting help. In fact, it can be advantageous from a treatment perspective to identify and deal with issues early and before they have a major impact on your life. Either way you should feel encouraged and able to seek help however you are feeling.
Mental health professionals such as licensed therapist can help in a range of ways including:
- Help you identify where, when, and how issues arise
- Develop coping strategies for specific symptoms and issues
- Encourage resilience and self-management
- Identify and change negative behaviors
- Identify and encourage positive behaviors
- Heal pain from past trauma
- Figure out goals and waypoints
- Build self-confidence
Treatment for mental health issues, and psychotherapy (sometimes known as 'talk therapy') in particular, frequently helps people to feel better, manage, and even get rid of their symptoms. For example, did you know that over 80% of people treated for depression materially improve? Or that treatment for panic disorder has a 90% success rate?
Other treatment options include medication which, in some cases, can be highly effective when administered in combination with psychotherapy.
So what is psychotherapy? It involves talking about your problems and concerns with a mental health professional. It can take lots of forms, including individual, group, couples and family sessions. Often, people see their therapists once a week for 50 minutes to start with and then reducing frequency as time goes on and issues subside. Treatment can be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few years depending on your particular situation and response.
Never think that getting help is a sign of weakness. It isn't. In fact, it can be a sign of strength and maturity to take the steps necessary to becoming you again and getting your life back on track.
WHEN TO GET EMERGENCY HELP
Are you in distress? If so, or if you think that you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your mental health specialist.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:
- Make sure someone stays with that person.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.