When Mental Worry Becomes Physical: Somatization

When Mental Worry Becomes Physical: Somatization

There is no question that chronic anxiety and stress can result in various physical and mental health consequences. While anxiety disorders happen to be more frequently diagnosed and understood, there is one physical disorder, in particular, that must be brought to one’s attention. Somatization, also known as somatic symptom disorder (SSD), is a mental health disorder listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition). This condition is rarely talked about; however, it can strongly interfere with one’s ability to function normally in daily life.

What Is Somatization?

Somatization is a condition that occurs when an individual feels extreme and persistent anxiety about their internal bodily sensations. This disorder develops from unmanaged stress that eventually produces physical symptoms. To be diagnosed with SSD, an individual must experience one or more physical symptoms with an additional excess of energy, time, emotion, or behavior spent fixating on the symptom, which results in significant distress.

Signs and Symptoms

Individuals that struggle with SSD may experience a wide range of mental and physical symptoms. Similarly, symptoms can range in severity from mild to severe and tend to change over time. Common physical symptoms include:

  • Physical pain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath

While physical symptoms are caused by stress, the primary symptoms of SSD are related to how people feel and behave as a response to their physical symptoms. Some of these prominent symptoms may include:

  • Feeling extreme anxiety about physical symptoms
  • Feeling concerned that mild symptoms are developing into chronic disease
  • Going to the doctor for assessments and procedures but not believing the results
  • Feeling that a doctor does not take their physical and mental health symptoms seriously or has not sufficiently treated their problem
  • Spending much time and energy coping with health concerns
  • Struggling to function because of distressing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about one’s health and symptoms

Possible Causes of SSD

Like many mental health conditions, there is no one known cause of SSD. Typically it begins before age 30 and involves an interaction of several different factors, including:

  • Being pessimistic or having a negative outlook on life
  • Being more sensitive to sensations, including pain
  • Family history of chronic anxiety or stress
  • Family dynamics growing up, such as childhood neglect, abuse, or chaotic lifestyle
  • Substance use
  • Genetics

The Prevalence of SSD

Despite SSD being a condition less recognized in day-to-day life, the prevalence of SSD is quite high. The NCBI online book Somatic Syndrome Disorders, written by Ryan S. D’Souza and W M. Hooten, states that nearly five to seven percent of the U.S. general population struggles with SSD, with a higher female representation. The prevalence of this condition is even more significant for individuals within the primary care patient population, being 17% respectively. Similarly, the prevalence tends to be higher in patient populations that have diagnosed functional disorders, such as fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic fatigue.

Treatment Options for SSD

The main goal of treatment for SSD is to help clients control their symptoms so they can better function in their daily lives. One of the most important facets of effective treatment is to have a supportive and balanced relationship between the client and the care provider. Clients should only be utilizing one primary care provider, which will help them with consistency and commitment to treatment. Similarly, the client should constantly contact their provider and see them regularly to access symptoms, coping skills, and potential future treatment routes.

Alongside having one primary care provider, a client should also see one mental health therapist. Due to the challenges involved with treating somatization, seeking a therapist who specializes in treating SSD is essential.

Treatment Objectives

As far as behavioral therapies go, many treatment options can help individuals work through the mental and physical symptoms associated with SSD. One popular treatment option is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can help clients bring awareness to how their thoughts and feelings affect their behavior and vice versa. Other therapy objectives for treating SSD include:

  • Bringing awareness to personal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about health and associated symptoms
  • Finding ways to cope with stress and anxiety about physical symptoms
  • Learning how to stop focusing on physical symptoms
  • Recognizing what thoughts or behaviors tend to worsen physical pain or other symptoms
  • Staying active
  • Staying social and connecting with social support groups
  • Learning how to function better in daily life without feeling controlled by SSD or associated symptoms

Potential Complications

One may experience several complications if their SSD is left untreated. These complications include:

  • Trouble functioning in daily life
  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Poor health
  • Increased risk of developing co-occurring disorders, including depression and suicidal ideation
  • Financial instability as a result of excess money spent on doctor’s visits and testing

When stress and anxiety are left untreated, it can lead to a range of mental and physical health problems. One particular condition that is not talked about enough is somatization, also known as somatic syndrome disorder. Individuals with SSD experience extreme and persistent anxiety about their bodily sensations, so much so that it interferes with their ability to function normally in daily life. It is crucial to receive treatment to alter the individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to help them better manage their symptoms. SoCal Mental Health is a mental health and addiction treatment facility that treats many conditions. We specialize in the treatment of somatization through the use of behavioral therapies. We believe that individualized treatment plans are the most effective way to encourage healing for our clients. To learn more, call us today at (949) 502-2041.

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