It is easy for people to dismiss the idea of somatic symptom disorder as “not real.” People who have never experienced it often believe that a person suffering from this type of illness is “faking it” or exaggerating the severity of his or her symptoms in order to gain sympathy.
However, it is important to note right away that a person who is dealing with this disorder is neither faking nor exaggerating his or her experiences. Somatic symptom disorder is a real and debilitating mental illness that is officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the primary tool that healthcare providers use to diagnose mental health issues.
This can feel like a complicated or overwhelming topic, especially for a person who believes that he or she may be affected by this illness. This is a completely normal reaction, and it is important to remember that you are not alone in this. To help you learn about this disorder in a simple and straightforward way, here are some of the most common questions and concerns that you might have about somatic symptom disorder.
What Is Somatic Symptom Disorder?
Somatic symptom disorder, which may also be abbreviated as SSD, is actually a somewhat broad term that is used to describe anyone who experiences extremely high levels of distress and anxiety as a result of unexplained physical symptoms. In essence, there are two important things happening to people who are affected by this disorder:
- They are experiencing some type of bodily symptoms, such as persistent pain, shortness of breath, or gastrointestinal distress, and these issues have no underlying medical explanation. In some cases, there is a partial medical explanation, but it does not solve the entire problem.
- They feel excessively upset by these physical symptoms to the point that it actively affects their daily lives. They constantly feel anxious about their health, or they are preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are related to the symptoms they are experiencing.
It is truly important to understand that a person with somatic symptom disorder is not faking his or her illness. In many cases, there is an underlying physiological issue that simply has not been found. The hallmark of this disorder is the extreme level of mental suffering that these unexplained physical symptoms cause, and this is what treatment centers around.
It is common for these people to be told that their fears are exaggerated. They may be told to “stop worrying so much” by friends, family, and even their doctors. However, downplaying the severity of this issue can actually make it far worse. Somatic symptom disorder is something that should be taken seriously, both by people who believe they may suffer from it as well as by friends, family, and physicians who come into contact with these people.
What Causes Somatic Symptom Disorder?
Currently, there is no clear cause of somatic symptom disorder, but there are a number of factors that can contribute to a person developing this issue. These include the following:
- A tendency toward negative emotion
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Pre-existing issues with anxiety or depression
- General sensitivity to pain
- Environmental factors such as upbringing or family dynamics
Even if none of the factors listed above apply to you, there are other things that can also contribute to the likelihood of developing somatic symptom disorder. This includes dealing with a long-term medical condition, experiencing trauma, surviving violence, or having generally poor health.
What Are the Signs of Somatic Symptom Disorder?
There are other mental health issues, such as hypochondria and severe anxiety, that may seem like the same thing as somatic symptom disorder. However, there are a few key differences that help to distinguish this disorder from others like it. Physical symptoms that can occur include the following:
- Unexplained pain
- Shortness of breath
- Sexual dysfunction
- Gastrointestinal distress
These physical symptoms usually do not respond well to medical treatment. Also, diagnostic tests typically do not yield helpful results.
Along with these physical sensations, some of the following mental symptoms are also present:
- Constant worry about your symptoms
- Altering your daily activities because of concerns that they might hurt your body
- Viewing normal bodily functions as signs of a serious illness
- Distrust of the advice or findings of your primary doctor
- Feeling the need to see multiple physicians for the same issues
- Feelings of anxiety about your symptoms that interfere with your daily life
- Physical symptoms feel more severe than would usually be expected from a medical illness
Who Can Be Affected by Somatic Symptom Disorder?
Unfortunately, the truth is that anyone can be affected by somatic symptom disorder. However, certain groups of people tend to be more at risk of developing it. Somatic symptom disorder is most commonly seen in people who meet some or all of the following criteria:
- Under 30
- History of trauma or abuse
- Physically disabled
- History of substance abuse
- Lower socioeconomic status
It is critical to remember that the list above is not comprehensive. Anyone of any age, race, gender, family background, or socioeconomic class can be affected. The factors listed above only represent those who are most vulnerable.
How Is Somatic Symptom Disorder Diagnosed?
Somatic symptom disorder is something that should be diagnosed and treated by a mental health professional. This can sometimes be a hurdle to treatment because patients who visit their primary doctors for physical symptoms are not always receptive to the idea that their bodily symptoms may not be fully explained by a medical diagnosis. This is especially true if patients have had past experiences with other physicians telling them that “nothing is wrong” or dismissing their concerns.
A physician is almost always the first person to suspect that a patient might be suffering from this condition. He or she will usually spend a considerable amount of time performing medical tests to rule out diseases that can look like somatic symptom disorder first.
If complaints persist, or the patient seems especially upset about his or her symptoms, the doctor might suggest a mental health referral. This is usually when SSD is diagnosed.
Can Somatic Symptom Disorder Be Cured?
There is no permanent cure for somatic symptom disorder for most people. However, this does not mean that there is no hope. While you may always deal with some residual feelings associated with somatic symptom disorder, the key to recovery lies in finding the right treatment plan for your unique needs.
In order for treatment to be successful, you must first have a trusting and supportive relationship with your primary physician. This means that you should choose one primary care physician and stop visiting other ones in the hopes of “getting answers.”
Choose the physician who is the most attentive and receptive to your concerns, and make an effort to develop your relationship with that person. He or she will take you seriously, and you will be able to get more effective treatment.
You must also accept that taking care of your mental health is the most important part of successful treatment. Even if it does not “cure” your physical symptoms, it is necessary for you to live a happy and healthy life. Finding a therapist who understands SSD will allow you to build a trusting, supportive, and non-judgmental relationship.
What Are the Treatment Options for This Disorder?
This is generally a chronic disorder, which means that it may persist for a long time. The good news is that most people are able to live fulfilling lives once they find the correct treatment plan for their situation.
The sooner that SSD can be correctly diagnosed, the less stressful it is for the person with the disorder. It may not feel that way, especially if you have been brought up in a culture that stigmatizes the treatment of mental health issues, but an SSD diagnosis is the first step toward recovery.
Accepting this diagnosis, or at least recognizing it as a possibility, will save you from unnecessary diagnostic tests as well as the frustration and stress of feeling like something is wrong with you as a person. Your experiences are real and valid, and you should try to explore every avenue of treatment in order to take back your life. In many cases, a combination of medication and mental health treatment can dramatically improve quality of life.
It is common for people who have somatic symptom disorder to find relief through antidepressant medication. Antidepressants can help to alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety that often accompany this disorder, and this can also help to decrease sensations of pain.
As with any medication, it’s important to monitor how you feel and allow plenty of time to pass in order to gauge whether or not it is working for you. Don’t hesitate to keep in contact with your care team throughout this process so that they can address your concerns or adjust your dosage as needed. In fact, scheduling regular short visits with your doctor is often part of a successful treatment plan.
Mental health treatment options like cognitive behavioral therapy, typically abbreviated as CBT, can also help you manage your symptoms and lead a happier life. With CBT, patients learn to become aware of unhelpful thought and behavior patterns that are causing problems.
The therapist will teach them how to change their perceptions so that they can live fuller lives without the burden of overwhelming anxiety about their health. CBT focuses on correcting harmful thinking patterns that contribute to these issues:
- Unrealistic beliefs
- Incorrect expectations regarding health
- Behavior patterns that contribute to health anxiety
- Hyper-focusing on physical sensations
Successful CBT will help you modify your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so that you can function better in all aspects of your daily life.
The Importance of a Holistic Approach
In addition to the treatment options listed above, it is also recommended to consider certain lifestyle changes as well. Learning mindfulness techniques and meditation exercises often produce positive results, and some patients even find it helpful to join a support group or peer community in order to feel like they are less isolated in their everyday lives.
Taking a holistic approach to dealing with somatic symptom disorder means that you are treating your mind, body, and spirit. This allows you to get to the root of the issue rather than using unhealthy coping mechanisms to simply “get by.”
In many cases, joining a recovery program is the best way to get a head start in your healing journey. NFA Behavioral Health offers clinical psychotherapeutic support and holistic therapies for people living with all types of conditions. Our offerings include one-on-one counseling, medication-assisted treatment, process groups, and meditation and yoga.
You Are Not Your Diagnosis
Whether you are someone who has been diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder or you have a loved one who is dealing with SSD, it is important to remember that help and support are available. You have already taken the first step by reading this guide. Choosing to take control of your physical and mental health is never an easy decision, but once you have made the first move in the right direction, the next step will be that much easier.