Psychosomatic illnesses: Are you really ill or is it just your mind playing tricks on you? Find out in this article.
A psychosomatic illness, or somatoform disorder as it is sometimes called, occurs when there are clear and present physical symptoms but no organic evidence to explain it. There is evidence that these illnesses are linked to psychological factors. The four most common syndromes are:
- Body Dysmorphic Disorder
- Somatization Disorder
- Conversion Disorder
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
This occurs when there is a preoccupation with an imagined or grossly exaggerated defect in appearance, to the extent that a person can no longer function normally. The most common complaints are facial flaws (skin, shape of nose), thinning hair or any other part of the body. Although sufferers admit that they are exaggerating, they still suffer great unhappiness. The syndrome has been recently recognised so there are no reliable figures on its prevalence. The syndrome is most closely associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Both have an early onset, are chronic and may respond to the drug Prozac.
This implies a fear of disease. A sufferer will constantly misinterpret physical signs and sensations as abnormal. Hypochondriacs have no real physical disability but they are convinced that one is about to appear. When they visit their GP they are almost already certain of the diagnosis. Although there is nothing wrong with them they are not faking the symptoms; they really do feel the pain they report and are afraid that they are going to die. Consequently they suffer from anxiety and depression. Research shows that people who had overprotective mothers or who read articles in health magazines are more likely to become hypochondriacs.
This disorder is characterised by numerous and recurrent physical complaints that begin by age 30, persist for several years and cause the person to seek medical treatment. These complaints, which are varied and dramatic, cannot be medically explained. Sufferers are not focused on one particular disease as in hypochondriasis. Fear of disease is what motivates the hypochondriac whereas what bothers the victim of somatization disorder is actually the symptoms themselves, which they describe in a vague, exaggerated way. Like hypochondriasis, somatisation disorder is often accompanied by depression and anxiety.
Previously known as hysteria, this involves actual disability, for example the loss or impairment of some motor or sensory function although there is no organic explanation. Conversion symptoms vary from one person to another but the most common are blindness, deafness, paralysis and anaesthesia. These are involuntary responses which are not in the person's conscious control.
There are many theories to explain somatoform disorders. The most popular is perhaps the psychodynamic perspective which implies that these disorders are defences against the anxiety caused by unacceptable wishes. There is a strong element of regression to a childlike state which will elicit care from others. If the underlying cause of regression is uncovered the condition could disappear on its own. Other theorists say that these disorder represent inappropriate adoptions of the 'sick role' in order to get attention or escape responsibilities. In this case coping skills have to be developed. There is also newfound evidence that there could be a genetic role.