Somatic Symptom Disorders Research Articles & Resources

Karina Thadani
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Are Somatic Symptoms?

Individuals with somatic symptom disorder (SSD) experience extreme anxiety and general dysfunction over physical symptoms. Those physical symptoms may or may not be the result of a diagnosed medical condition. The emotional response to these feelings, also called somatic symptoms, can be debilitating. (1)
There are several conditions characterized by somatic symptoms. These conditions, which are sometimes collectively referred to as somatoform disorders, include:

  • Somatization disorder: Type of SSD that involves gastrointestinal, pseudoneurological, and sexual symptoms that last for several years
  • Undifferentiated somatoform disorder: A less specific form of SSD that involves at least one unexplained symptom that lasts at least 6 months (2)
  • Hypochondriasis: A condition characterized by excessive worrying about becoming sick, despite having no or minimal physical symptoms (3)
  • Conversion disorder: A disorder that occurs when someone experiences serious neurological symptoms (such as blindness or paralysis) but has no underlying medical condition (4)
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD): A disorder that involves an intense focus on one's own appearance and constant worrying about perceived flaws (5)
  • Psychogenic pain disorder: A condition characterized by prolonged pain caused by mental or emotional factors (6)

Related Questions & Answers

What Causes Somatic Symptoms?

The exact cause of somatic symptoms is unclear. There are several factors, however, that may increase one's risk of developing those symptoms and/or SSD: (7)

  • Pain sensitivity: Being very sensitive to pain may make it harder to cope with illnesses and injuries.
  • Medical condition: Those who have or are recovering from a medical condition may be more sensitive to symptoms.
  • Mental health condition: Certain mental health conditions, such as anxiety, may cause chronic worrying. Between 30% and 60% of SSD patients also have anxiety or depression. (8)
  • Past trauma: Those who have experienced trauma, such as child abuse or violence, are more likely to develop SSD.
  • Current stress: A stressful event, such as financial problems or job loss, can result in physical symptoms or make them more pronounced.
  • Difficulty processing emotions: Those who have difficulty processing emotions may hyper-focus on physical symptoms and prioritize them over emotional issues.
  • Negative outlook: People who tend to have a negative outlook might be more worried about symptoms.

Ultimately, anyone can develop somatic symptom disorder; however, medical history, mental health, stress, and personality can increase one's risk.

What Are the Symptoms of Somatic Symptom Disorder?

Symptoms of SSD can be physical or emotional in nature. Physical symptoms typically include pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath. They may be the result of a medical condition or have no known cause. These symptoms also vary in severity from patient to patient.
Along with experiencing physical effects, SSD patients often experience increased anxiety and stress. These emotional symptoms may be accompanied by the following behaviors:

  • Visiting a healthcare provider multiple times
  • Seeking opinions from several healthcare providers
  • Repeatedly evaluating one's body for physical signs
  • Refraining from physical activities
  • Experiencing heightened sensitivity to medication
  • Developing a dependency on other people

Ultimately, there are many possible symptoms of SSD. When put together, these symptoms might present as someone scheduling multiple doctors' appointments, disagreeing with professional diagnoses, and repeating the cycle in pursuit of a "better" answer.
In addition to relying on external help, SSD patients often spend time and energy focusing on their own bodies. They might obsessively examine themselves for any abnormalities or refrain from physical activities due to fear. Over time, this worry can develop into dependency on friends and family. (9)

Do I Have Somatic Symptom Disorder? How Is It Diagnosed?

To be officially diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder, a patient must generally experience the following: (10)

  • At least one physical symptom that interferes with daily life
  • At least one symptom that continues for months
  • Excessive anxiety about physical symptoms

Before providing an official diagnosis, healthcare providers may conduct physical examinations to rule out any medical conditions. They might also refer the patient to a mental health specialist for a more comprehensive psychological evaluation. (11)

What Is the Best Treatment for Somatic Symptoms?

Most healthcare providers recommend psychotherapy as a treatment option for individuals diagnosed with SSD. Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy involves working with a licensed mental health specialist to identify and resolve troublesome emotions, feelings, and behaviors. It may also help lower stress levels, improve familial relationships, and teach patients how to cope with the physical symptoms of SSD. (12)
Some patients may also benefit from taking medication. Certain antidepressants, drugs specifically designed to alleviate symptoms of depression, can help reduce some of the mental and physical symptoms associated with SSD. (13)

How to Cope With a Somatic Symptom Diagnosis

A somatic symptom or SSD diagnosis can come with a range of emotions. It's common for patients to feel confused, frustrated, and upset in the absence of a clear-cut medical explanation for their symptoms. In some cases, patients may feel guilty and blame themselves for "overreacting" or struggling to cope with the condition and its side effects.
It's important that SSD patients remind themselves their diagnosis is not their fault. Oftentimes, SSD is caused or exacerbated by external factors, including stress or trauma, beyond the individual's control. Patients should also remember that they're not alone—approximately five to seven percent of adults across the world have SSD. (14)

How to Help Someone With Somatic Symptoms

People with somatic symptom disorder often depend on support from both healthcare providers and loved ones. Many SSD patients worry that their friends and family won't trust them after the diagnosis. (15) Thus, it's important for loved ones to show they care about and believe in the person diagnosed. Here are a few ways to help someone with SSD:

  • Provide reassurance to help alleviate feelings of guilt or shame
  • Communicate regularly and openly
  • Resist the urge to pass judgment

Above all, it's important to encourage patients to receive treatment. Mental health assistance, such as psychotherapy, can be key to resolving somatic symptoms. (16)