Somatic symptom disorder

What is somatic symptom disorder (SSD)?

Somatic symptom disorder, which was previously known as somatization disorder or somatoform disorder, is a mental illness that has an extreme focus on physical symptoms, such as pain or fatigue that causes the individual severe emotion distress and anxiety. This causes disruption to their daily life, affecting their overall ability to function. The physical symptoms causing the individual distress are real – they are not being faked or made up – however, there may not be a medical reason for their physical symptoms. However, a diagnosis of SSD is not given on this basis (i.e. if a medical cause cannot be found for their pain or fatigue), but is made based on the extent to which their symptoms affect their emotions, behaviours and thoughts.

What are the symptoms of somatic symptom disorder?

Common symptoms of somatic symptom disorder can include:

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Sexual symptoms

Alongside the above physical symptoms, SSD also includes excessive and disabling thoughts, behaviours and feelings. These may display as the following:

  • Anxiety and worry about illness
  • Fearing the worst for their physical symptoms, even if there is no evidence
  • Feeling as though a medical assessment is not adequate to explain their symptoms
  • Repeatedly checking the body for problems
  • Being unresponsive to medical treatment
  • Being impaired more than usual by a medical problem or physical symptom

What causes somatic symptom disorder?

The exact cause of somatic symptoms disorder is not known, however, the roles of the following factors play a role:

  • Familial environment
  • Genetic factors
  • Learned behaviour (e.g. attention gained from being ill)
  • Being more sensitive to pain and other sensations than is normal
  • Having a negative outlook or personality
  • Upbringing and having experienced stressful or traumatic events
  • Suffering from anxiety or depression

Can somatic symptom disorder be prevented?

Not much is currently known about preventing somatic symptoms disorder, however, the following steps are recommended:

  • Seeking professional help for feelings of anxiety or depression
  • Get treatment early on if you suspect something is not right
  • Following your treatment plan
  • Learning how to better recognise and handle stress

What is the treatment for somatic symptom disorder?

Treatment for somatic symptom disorder uses a combination of psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medications. Medications can help to reduce any symptoms of depression or pain.

CBT can help patients to:

  • Cope better with stress
  • Change their beliefs and expectations about their physical symptoms
  • Show them how to be less preoccupied with their physical symptoms
  • Improve their daily functioning and ability to have social relationships
  • Address feelings of anxiety and depression
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