He worries it could be life-threatening and wants a diagnosis before it is too late. The doctor runs a battery of tests and scans failing to find any new information that could be helpful. The patient insists there is a physical condition that nobody can diagnose.  Ever met someone who seems to be obsessed with their physical senses and symptoms?

Somatic symptom disorder (SSD) is a mental health disorder leading to significant distress or problems functioning due to a preoccupation with one or more somatic symptoms. A somatic symptom is a physical symptom that is experienced in the body, such as pain or fatigue. Individuals with SSD often suffer from several somatic symptoms for which there is no underlying medical condition or explicable causes.  Somatic Symptom Disorder is characterized by excessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours related to the symptoms.

Characteristics of Somatic Symptom Disorder

People with SSD are preoccupied with having a physical illness. Typically, the symptoms they describe vary from general complaints like fatigue and pain to specific body functions such as breathing or stomach problems. It is important to understand the person is not lying or faking the symptoms and they genuinely believe they are sick. In cases where they do have a medical condition, the intensity of their worry or distress is disproportionate to the ailment.  Symptoms of SSD may include:

  • Fixation about one or more physical symptoms
  • Excessive and unrealistic fears, thoughts, and behaviours related to the symptoms
  • Difficulty functioning in daily life due to the symptoms
  • A high level of distress related to the symptoms

ShiftGrit Psychology & Counselling - somatic symptom disorder

Warning signs that indicate SSD

Many warning signs can signal that an individual may have somatic symptom disorder (SSD). Some of these include:

  • Preoccupation with one or more physical symptoms
  • History of visiting multiple doctors
  • Shopping around for a doctor who agrees they have a serious illness
  • Difficulty functioning in daily life due to the symptoms
  • A high level of distress related to the symptoms
  • Excessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours related to the symptoms
  • Multiple somatic symptoms that do not appear to be caused by a medical condition or are out of proportion to any underlying medical condition
  • Obsession with a specific organ or body system such as the heart or digestive system

It is helpful to note that many of these symptoms may overlap with physical or mental illnesses so thorough evaluation is necessary for a concrete diagnosis and treatment.

Diagnosis and treatment

SSD can prove challenging to diagnose because of the overlap with existing medical or mental health conditions in people. People need to seek a proper assessment from a qualified mental health practitioner to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment.  Psychologists or psychiatrists evaluate individuals based on their attitude and behaviour when physical conditions have been ruled out as a cause.

They may use tools such as personality assessment tests to confirm their diagnosis.  Treatment options include a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive behavioural therapy is believed to be quite effective in helping individuals understand and manage their symptoms, behaviours, and thoughts. Medication, often antidepressants may help in reducing the severity of anxiety and depression that often impact individuals suffering from SSD.

However, it is essential for people with SSD to receive consistent treatment and support to improve the quality of their life and manage the overall symptoms. If you think you have SSD, you must speak with a qualified psychiatrist or therapist. Individuals may also look at other treatment options for somatic symptom disorder such as Mindfulness-based therapy Mindfulness-based approaches help people become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations and learn to respond in a more balanced way. 

Relaxation techniques Tools and techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and guided imagery enable people with SSD to relax, reduce their stress and improve their overall well-being.  Exercise and physical activity Regular exercise has been linked with uplifting the morale of people suffering from many psychological conditions, including SSD. Support groups and communities Connecting with others who are suffering from similar challenges can offer individuals invaluable support and guidance.

Outlook for people with Somatic Symptom Disorder

SSD tends to be a chronic condition that can impair the quality of an individual’s life and daily functioning. The outlook for people with somatic symptom disorder (SSD) varies and depends on several factors, such as the severity of the disorder, the individual’s response to treatment, and the availability of support and resources. The focus of treatment is usually on learning to manage the symptoms rather than reducing the functional problems linked with the disorder. However, with the right treatment and support, individuals can manage their symptoms well and improve their overall quality of life.