What Are Psychosomatic Symptoms And Why Are They Harmful?
By: Darby Faubion
Updated September 18, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Heather Cashell
No one likes to be told their symptoms are psychosomatic. That's because, for many people, the term has come to mean imaginary. Being told your symptoms aren't real makes you feel brushed off and disrespected. However, a new definition of psychosomatic symptoms is emerging as scientists explore the mind-body connection. Medical doctors and mental health professionals are also changing the way they view these symptoms. What they've come to understand better is that both psychological and biological factors influence our health, and psychosomatic symptoms are just as important to address as physical symptoms.
People who experience psychosomatic symptoms often seem to be obsessed with their symptoms. They usually have frequent visits to their primary care provider, often with no medical explanation for their symptoms. Health concerns become such a central focus of life, that it becomes hard to function, often leading to living a life of solitude, and sometimes disability.
Signs of Psychosomatic Symptom Disorder
Significant emotional and physical distress are present with psychosomatic symptom disorder. While everyone's experience may be different, there are some common symptoms of psychosomatic symptom disorder.
- Specific sensations, such as shortness of breath or pain
- More specific symptoms, such as weakness or fatigue
- Constant worry about potential illness
- Thinking that physical sensations are life-threatening or harmful
- Questioning the adequacy of a recent medical evaluation or treatment
- Repeatedly checking the body for abnormalities
- Frequent medical visits that don't relieve concerns or that seem to make them worse
- Experiencing severe impairment that would be associated with a medical condition, although there is no supporting diagnosis
The exact cause of psychosomatic symptom disorder is not clear. However, some of the following factors are thought to have a role in the development of symptoms.
- Genetic and biological factors may contribute to increased sensitivity to pain or other stimuli.
- Difficulty processing emotional issues may lead some individuals to experience physical symptoms as a defense mechanism for not dealing with the emotional trouble.
- Learned behaviors can result in symptoms; for example, the attention or other benefits gained from having an illness.
Any disorder, real or perceived, has risk factors that increase the chances of the disorder occurring. For example, smoking is a risk factor for developing lung cancer. Risk factors for psychosomatic symptom disorder include, but are not limited to:
- Experiencing a stressful event, such as violence or trauma
- Having a low-level of education
- Lower socioeconomic status
- History of anxiety or depression
- Family history of chronic or terminal diseases
Medical Conditions that May Have a Psychological Component
While not all medical conditions will present with psychological symptoms, there are some that may seem worse during times of stress. If you're experiencing any of the following medical conditions or symptoms and begin to feel emotional or mental strain, make an appointment with your physician for an evaluation, The conditions and symptoms include:
- High blood pressure
- Skin disorders such as psoriasis or eczema
- Gastrointestinal disorders like stomach ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome
- Heart disease
Many physical diseases or conditions, such as the ones listed above, may be made worse by mental factors.
Are Psychosomatic Symptoms Harmful?
Psychosomatic symptoms are very real to the person experiencing them and they should not be dismissed. The long-term effects of psychosomatic symptoms can be far-reaching. For example, psychosomatic symptom disorder has been known to be associated with:
- Failing relationships
- Loss of employment
- Financial difficulty related to loss of employment or excessive medical
- Development of other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression and personality disorders
- Increased suicide risk related to depression
Prevention and Treatment
It's not always easy to prevent psychosomatic symptoms. However, learning to recognize when you are feeling stressed and how your body responds may be helpful. It can be useful to learn relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga.
If you're experiencing anxiety or depression or if you are unable to process any other emotions associated with the psychosomatic symptoms you are feeling, it is important to seek professional help. Getting treatment early may help prevent the worsening of symptoms and the long-term negative effects that come with it.
It is always best to talk with your primary care provider before beginning any treatment regimen. They'll be able to go over your medical history and make recommendations, as needed, for care regarding your medical symptoms and can also provide a referral for help regarding the psychological symptoms that you're experiencing.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is commonly the treatment of choice for a psychosomatic disorder. CBT involves helping patients learn new ways of coping with and solving problems while gaining a deeper understanding of their physical and mental conditions. With CBT, patients learn to set realistic goals and to identify and change behaviors that may have a negative impact on their physical and emotional well-being.
The good news is, there are options for seeking care and learning to manage psychosomatic symptoms so that you can enjoy a normal life. You may choose to attend a support group for people who are experiencing psychosomatic symptom disorder or engage in group or individual counseling.
Individual counseling can be done in a counselor or therapist's office, in a local mental health clinic, or online. If you are unsure about in-person sessions right now, online counseling, such as that offered by BetterHelp is a great way to get the help you need, while still having a sense of control over when and where you talk with someone.
At BetterHelp, our team of dedicated, professional counselors, doctors, and social workers will work with you as you learn to navigate through the difficulties that psychosomatic symptoms may be causing you. You can access BetterHelp from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). Below you can read some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people who have been helped with similar issues.
"I am still receiving Dr Bratton's counseling. She is a very compassionate psychologist who knows how to put words to my distressed feelings. Her expertise with stress and trauma is making me realize how much I have been coping with and the impact on my emotional and mental well being. I am still on a journey towards healing when I get safely to the other side and having Dr Bratton as my counsellor is the happiest thing I have at the moment in my life as her understanding of my feelings , mental state, pain and trauma is in itself helping me with my healing journey. I will not change her for anyone else! I am so happy that I have found her."
"I put off finding a therapist for a long time. I dreaded my first conversation with Neil and all the awkward, clunky explanations I'd have to give about my depression and anxiety. All of the things that felt like dirty little secrets that caused me so much pain. But I was so pleasantly surprised by the way Neil accurately picked up on what I was saying and gave me more insight into how my brain was working. It made my issue feel so much less of a personal problem and more of a universal problem we could examine together. He always gives me a thoughtful response within a day or two any time I send a message. I actually think we've made more progress in between sessions just by being able to communicate things that are coming up in real time. Neil is intelligent and kind. I really appreciate his communication style and highly recommend him."
Psychosomatic symptom disorder can have far-reaching effects on an individual's physical and mental health. As frustrating as symptoms may be, there is hope and there is help. No matter what you're experiencing, your symptoms don't have to prevent you from enjoying life. With the right tools, a truly fulfilling life is possible. Take the first step today.