Somatization refers to the condition in which mental (psychological) problems manifest in the form of physical (somatic) symptoms. Although the symptoms may be caused by a medical problem, often no specific underlying problem can be found to account for the symptoms or their severity.
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Previously known as somatization disorder, somatic symptom disorder (SSD) refers to occasions when individuals become highly anxious about the symptoms they are suffering from, and which often persist for many years. A person with SSD experiences extreme thoughts, feeling and behaviors, which can be very distressing and may disrupt day-to-day living.
In SSD, it is the response to the symptoms that is the predominant problem. Symptoms need not be clinically unexplained, but the patient’s reaction to the symptoms is considered disproportionate and excessive.
The thoughts, feeling and behaviors that occur as reaction to physical symptoms can lead people with SSD to frequently visit their doctors. Reassurance from healthcare providers is often of little comfort to the SSD sufferer, who continues to seek and explanation even when underlying medical problems have been excluded.
SSD usually affects people under the age of 30 years and is more common among women than men, although its prevalence does vary between cultures.
It is not known why the condition arises, but experts believe that certain factors may be involved, such as the following:
- Having a negative personality – a tendency to think negatively can influence how a person perceives illness and physical symptoms.
- Increased sensitivity – some people are physically and emotionally more sensitive than others to certain sensations such as pain
- Family history – Family history may influence the likelihood of developing SSD, an influence that may be genetic and/or environmental.
- Decreased awareness of emotions or difficulty processing them - A decreased ability to acknowledge emotions or process them may lead to physical symptoms becoming the focus rather than the emotions
SSD shares features of anxiety disorder, where people become excessively worried about becoming sick or diseased, although few or no symptoms go on to develop with anxiety disorder.
Some factors that are known to increase the risk of SSD include:
- The presence of anxiety or depression
- The presence of a medical condition or being in recovery due to one
- A history of stressful events such as violence, trauma or sexual abuse
- Lower education and socio-economic status
Treatment based upon a strong doctor-patient relationship, can help to relieve such a patient’s symptoms and improve the quality of life.
Reviewed by Liji Thomas, MD.