Somatic Symptom Disorder

Somatic symptom disorder is a mental health issue in which an individual suffers with a significant focus, amount of time and energy spent on physical symptoms, so much so that the individual suffers emotional distress, difficulties with self-concept, frustration and anxiety, and problems functioning.  There may or may not be a diagnosed medical issue at the root of this disorder. 

Somatic symptom disorder may be occurring when a person feels significant distress or disruption to their life by the experience of excessive thoughts, overwhelming feelings, and/or problematic behaviours related to somatic (body) symptoms, for an extended period of time.

This distress and disruption often includes persistent thoughts about the seriousness of symptoms, worry outside of what might be considered normative for the situation, a constant state of anxiety, and/or excessive amounts of time being spent on these symptoms, including research, physician appointments, etc.,

At times, a client knows the root of the physical symptoms, has a medical diagnosis and psychological therapy has been suggested to the individual to help with reducing anxiety, improving coping, and managing distress. 

Other times, clients have seen their primary physician and specialists, and in finding symptoms medically unexplained, have been referred for psychological therapy.   This can feel like a dismissive and frustrating option for clients; however, exploring psychosomatic origins for processing can be helpful.

Idiopathic (of unknown origin) pain and other somatic (body-focused) symptoms present in people suffering depression, anxiety, and those who have suffered trauma.  There may have been a triggering medical event or a trauma, and individuals who have reported a history of sexual or childhood abuse or neglect, or a history of depression or anxiety, may be at a higher risk for developing somatic symptom disorder.  Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a gentle approach to inquiring into the wisdom of the body to see, feel, understand, and process what may be held by the body.

Whether or not symptoms are medically explained, the suffering of these individuals is real.  Individuals may report a heightened awareness, response to, or sensitization to, pain; increased attention and disturbance of other body sensations; and obsessive or intrusive thoughts around these symptoms and any possible medical illnesses which may be associated.

Symptoms of Somatic Symptom Disorder

•Specific symptoms, e.g. discomforting sensation, localized pain

•Generalized symptoms, e.g. general or changing pain, persistent fatigue, muscle weakness

•Unrelated to any medical cause that can be identified, or related to a medical condition such as cancer or heart disease, but more significant than what's usually expected

•One symptom, a combination of symptoms, or changing and varying symptoms

•Mild, moderate or severe


Excessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors can include:

•Having a high level of worry about illness or potential illness

•Attributing normal physical sensations as a sign of severe physical illness

•Fearing the medical seriousness of symptoms, even when evidence tends to disconfirm this

•Thinking of physical sensations as threatening, harmful or causing problems

•Feeling that medical evaluation, response, and treatment have not been adequate

•Repeatedly or consistently checking and double-checking the body for abnormalities

•Frequent health care visits that don't relieve your concerns or that make them worse

•Being unresponsive to medical treatment or unusually sensitive to medication side effects

•Having a more severe impairment than would usually be expected related to a medical condition

Therapy may help a client manage their organization of illness - the way an illness and it's symptoms impacts them mentally, emotionally, and in their thinking and behaviours.  Therapy may also help to unearth and process psychological origins of somatic distress.