A Comprehensive Guide to Somatoform Disorders

December 1, 2022

6 min read

Somatoform disorders, also known as somatic symptom disorders, are a group of mental health disorders that cause various physical symptoms. These can include body discomfort and abnormal behaviours, thoughts and feelings. Medical conditions, substance abuse and mental disorders can cause these symptoms and can also occur without any medical explanation. In any case, all these symptoms lead to extreme and massive distress in the individual.

What are somatoform disorders?

Somatoform disorders occur due to psychological or mental factors, leading to physical symptoms such as numbness and seizures. Typically, these types of physical symptoms usually go away when the emotional aspects or stress causing them are alleviated. However, suppose the symptoms are present for a long time, say six months, and are severe enough. In that case, they can cause distress in an individual leading to a diagnosis of somatoform disorder. This condition occurs when an individual’s feelings, behaviours and focus related to physical symptoms are excessive.

You might be unaware that you have a somatoform disorder and instead believe you have a chronic physical illness. You may proceed to visit several healthcare professionals and have to endure unwanted procedures and tests. Others may think your symptoms are ordinary, even though they may be causing you significant distress. Occasionally, your symptoms can be severe enough to disrupt daily functioning. It will often be frustrating for you and your doctor to deal with a somatoform disorder due to difficulty ascertaining the condition.

According to studies, somatoform disorders prevail in 0.1-0.2% of the general population in India. The signs of the condition usually exhibit before the individual reaches 30 years of age, and women are at a higher risk of somatoform disorders than men. 

Symptoms of somatoform disorders

The physical symptoms of somatoform disorders may be severe, mild or moderate and can occur individually or in groups. They may not have any apparent cause, or a specific medical condition can cause these. How we behave, think and feel in response to these symptoms influences the main symptoms of somatoform disorders. You may experience the following:

  • Dyspnea or shortness of breath
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Specific sensations such as pain
  • Depression and anxiety

Other feelings and thoughts you may experience if you have a somatoform disorder are:

  • Extreme anxiety about physical symptoms
  • Concern that mild physical symptoms may transform into severe conditions
  • Feeling that your healthcare provider is not taking your symptoms seriously
  • Putting in a lot of energy and time in dealing with different health concerns
  • Being dependent on others, asking for emotional support
  • Getting angry when your requirements are not met
  • Constantly worrying about potential illness
  • Feeling that the current diagnosis and treatment are not adequate
  • Fearing that any physical activity may damage your body
  • Checking your body repeatedly for abnormalities
  • Frequent healthcare visits do not relieve concerns and may even worsen the condition
  • Experiencing more severe impairment from a condition than is generally expected
  • Being unresponsive or unusually sensitive to medicines and treatment.

Causes of somatoform disorders

The causes of somatoform disorders are of three types: 

  • Biological and genetic factors 
  • Psychological factors  
  • Environmental factors

Biological and genetic factors

  • People who are very sensitive to pain can have a somatoform condition.
  • Somatoform disorders can run in families.
  • People prone to worrying or having negative mindsets can have a somatoform disease.
  • Individuals with antisocial behaviours are likely to develop somatoform disorders.

Psychological factors

  • Somatoform disorders can occur in individuals unable to process emotional problems properly. They may have physical symptoms that become the focus instead of emotional issues.
  • Somatoform disorders can develop in an individual’s subconscious.

Environmental factors

  • Childhood sexual or physical abuse can cause somatoform disorders
  • Excessive attention to bodily procedures, possible symptoms of illness and anxiety can cause somatoform diseases.
  • Poor emotional development in childhood due to a lack of emotional closeness or parental neglect can lead to somatoform disorders.

Effects of somatoform disorders

The effects of somatoform disorders include:

The effects of somatoform disorders include:

  • Problems in relationships
  • Problems with regular, daily functions
  • Physical disabilities
  • Poor health
  • Problems at work or unemployment
  • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts and depression
  • Mental health conditions such as personality disorders and anxiety
  • Financial issues due to frequent healthcare visits.
  • Psychological disabilities
  • Substance abuse
  • Poor quality of life.

Somatoform disorders can also lead to different conditions, like illness anxiety disorder and conversion disorder. Experts also call the latter a functional neurological symptom disorder. Here, people can experience blindness, loss of hearing, paralysis, seizures, numbness, tremor etc. And people with illness anxiety disorder think they have a severe problem, even if the illness is minor.

Treatment of somatoform disorders

How can you overcome somatoform disorders? The two main treatment methods are psychotherapy and medicines. Sometimes, experts suggest a combination of both to improve anxiety due to unexplained physical symptoms or poor quality of life.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy, is the best way to overcome somatoform disorders. Here, a therapist identifies your irrational or negative behavioural patterns and thoughts. They will work with you to find ways to deal with these thoughts and respond to stressful situations more effectively. It will help you function better at work, at home, and society.

Medications

Antidepressant drugs are beneficial in treating somatoform disorders. They work best in combination with psychotherapy.

Conclusion

Experiencing somatoform disorders can be overwhelming. But we can improve our quality of life with the proper medications and therapy. The symptoms of this mental health condition may not disappear completely. But you can always learn the correct way to manage them so they do not take a toll on your regular life. The best action is to take care of yourself and visit an expert soon.

You can also opt for mental healthcare from United We Care, an online platform offering therapy for mental health. Here, licenced psychologists and therapists will listen to your problems and guide you so that you can lead a healthy, fulfilling life. Contact us today and start your journey towards better mental health!

 

References:

https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/294908-overview

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/somatic-symptom-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20377776

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17976-somatic-symptom-disorder-in-adults

https://www.medindia.net/patientinfo/somatoform-disorders.htm

https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2007/1101/p1333.html#:~:text=The%20unexplained%20symptoms%20of%20somatoform,care%20system%3B%20disproportionate%20disability%3B%20displays

https://www.healthline.com/health/somatic-symptom-disorder#complications

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