People with somatic symptom disorder (SSD) become extremely focused on physical symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, and tiredness. While these symptoms are real and could be due to a legitimate health condition, in cases of SSD, the focus is intense enough to cause significant psychological and physical distress, and make day-to-day functioning difficult. People with this disorder often believe a serious condition is causing their symptoms and continue to seek care medical care even after a minor diagnosis or a doctor has reassured them. Although somatic symptom disorder can affect the quality of life, there are effective treatment options available.
Causes of Somatic Symptom Disorder
Somatic symptom disorder most often starts when an individual is younger than 30, and it is more prevalent in women than men. Often, there is no clear reason why the person has developed the condition. However, a personality that tends towards a negative outlook can be one factor, as can a family history of the condition or related disorders. Some research suggests those who are predisposed to be highly sensitive to physical pain and discomfort are more likely to develop somatic symptom disorder, and there may also be a genetic component.
Common Physical Symptoms
People with somatic symptom disorder experience real physical symptoms — they are not imagined. These symptoms can vary in intensity from mild to severe and often include breathlessness, exhaustion, or weakness, though pain is the most commonly reported symptom. Doctors may be unable to pinpoint a medical reason, or there may be a clear and diagnosable medical cause. However, people with somatic symptom disorder are likely to experience the symptoms of their illness more severely than is common.
Thoughts and Feelings
Along with physical sensations, people with somatic symptom disorder experience a range of thoughts and feelings in response to their symptoms. Often, they find themselves worrying extensively about the possible causes, and it is common to experience the belief that symptoms are dangerous or the sign of a serious health problem, even following professional exclusion of these possibilities. People with the disorder often feel the doctor failed to investigate their symptoms properly. They may also develop self-checking behaviors, where they frequently examine their bodies for signs of illness. Sometimes, these feelings, in combination with physical symptoms, can lead to physical disability.
Some people are more at risk for somatic symptom disorder than others. The condition is more likely to develop in people who already have an existing mental health condition such as depression. People who have experienced traumatic life events or abuse are also more predisposed to SSD. Having or recovering from a diagnosed medical condition can also lead to the development of the disorder, as can a family history of a particular condition.
When to seek help
Those experiencing symptoms of SSD should first seek medical evaluation by a doctor. This will help identify any possible medical cause for the physical symptoms and will rule out any serious underlying conditions. They should let the doctor know the thoughts and feelings accompanying the symptoms, as well. The doctor will evaluate whether there is cause for concern and may refer the patient to a mental health practitioner for further treatment.
Treating Somatic Symptom Disorder
Once diagnosed with SSD, an individual has several treatment options. First, of course, the doctor will treat any underlying medical problems causing the physical symptoms, including managing pain. He or she may also prescribe antidepressants if the individual is experiencing symptoms of depression. A mental health professional may also be involved in treatment to recommend relaxation techniques, group therapy, and self-help strategies such as increasing physical exercise. In some cases, cognitive behavioral therapy may be helpful in reducing the non-physical symptoms of SSD.
If left untreated, somatic symptom disorder can lead to the development of other mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. The condition can also affect interpersonal relationships and day-to-day activities. This can cause problems at work or lead to dismissal. An often overlooked complication of SSD is the financial problems it can cause. When the person is frequently seeking medical care, this can lead to unaffordable medical expenditures.
Prevention of SSD
Unfortunately, there’s not much known about how to stop someone from developing somatic symptom disorder in the first place. However, some medical recommendations may be of use, should symptoms develop. Doctors recommend seeking prompt treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, as these can make an individual more prone to developing SSD. If you believe you are showing signs of somatic symptom disorder, speak to a physician or mental health professional.
Home Remedies for SSD
Though medical help should be the first stop, some simple self-help measures can supplement that treatment. Strategies for managing stress and anxiety, such as relaxation techniques, can help a person cope with some of the thoughts and feelings accompanying the physical symptoms. Maintaining relationships with others and joining in with group activities is also helpful. It’s best to avoid alcohol and any recreational drugs, as these can worsen symptoms. Gentle exercise can make the person feel better physically, which can lead to improved mental health.
Caring for Somebody with SSD
Friends and family members of a person with SSD can find it difficult to know how to help since there is no serious medical explanation for the symptoms. We naturally want to reassure our loved ones, but this is not always the best course of action in the case of SSD. Instead, people in such relationships may want to gently encourage the individual to seek help for both the physical and mental symptoms of the condition. Caregivers should also take care not to abandon their own wellbeing.