Distressed by headaches, heart palpitations, dizziness and pain for a long time? You’re not alone. Some persistent physical symptoms do not match recognised medical conditions. But that doesn’t mean these symptoms are ‘all in your head’. What you’re experiencing is real. Your body is telling you that something is wrong. That something needs to change for you to live, feel and be well.
Your condition can be treated. When usual diagnostic procedures are inconclusive and the pain you are experiencing continues, it could mean that a psychological problem may be causing your physical discomfort. Here, we look at two types of Somatic Symptom and Related Disorder.
Somatic Symptom Disorder
Take Grace as an example. For over a year, she struggled with chronic headaches. She saw five different doctors and had a brain scan and everything came back clear. Why was she in so much pain? Pain so debilitating it impacted her ability to work and forced her to rest. The stress of her headaches led her to IMI’s Counselling Psychologist Jessica Lau.
Working with Grace, Jessica recognised the tell-tale signs of Somatic Symptom Disorder. Individuals feel extreme anxious over a physical symptom that may have no clear medical explanation and have excessive thoughts and behaviours in response to the symptom, which can worsen it. This disorder can be related to childhood challenges and trauma.
It turned out that rest was not the norm for Grace. As a young child, she saw her mother suffered from long-term illness and was always vulnerable. The weight of her responsibilities toward family and particularly her younger siblings lay heavily on her young shoulders. Growing up, she felt an obligation to always be and do well. Her family needed her and their needs made her forget and forego her own needs.
Grace’s headaches were sending her a message to meet her own emotional and physical needs – that it was ok to rest. That it was necessary to reconnect with herself and see how sacrificing her own needs had become her way of life and more importantly that she could consciously choose how to continue living her life.
Her headaches eventually went away as Grace began to work toward a healthier, balanced way of being.
Illness Anxiety Disorder
If you always feel that you have an illness or you have been called a hypochondriac, you may be able to relate to Mark. Mark could hear himself breathe. He told his wife and friends and they shared that they too could hear their breathing sometimes and it was nothing to worry about. But, he was worried. So worried in fact that he thought he might have lung cancer. He fluctuated between seeing different doctors multiple times to avoiding doctors altogether for fear of the worst possible outcome. After two years of observing her husband’s distress, Mark’s wife encouraged him to seek therapy.
Through therapy, the link between the sound of breath, serious illness and death came to the surface. Mark had witnessed the death of his grandmother who had taken care of him when he was younger. He heard her take her final breaths and regretted not being able to say more to her before she died. His family did not speak of her death and he mourned alone.
During his sessions with Jessica, Mark had a safe space to speak openly of his loss and say all that he had wanted to say to his grandmother. The fear of illness and death channelled into energy propelling him to live a life as full as she did and he began to remember her as the strong and loving woman she was. And so, his breathing became a reminder to him to live well.
Our bodies know before we know. Sometimes, they serve us with tough love to remind us that there are things worth untangling for us to live the life we deserve.
If you have been experiencing chronic physical symptoms, psychotherapy can help to determine the underlying challenges impacting your health and wellbeing. Equipping yourself with the answers is the first step to living a better life.
*Names and specific circumstances have been changed to protect and respect client confidentiality.
體化症 Somatic symptoms disorder
林小姐患上體化症Somatic symptoms disorder。一年前在自己覺得自己沒有足夠預備的情況下被公司硬推升職。為了不讓別人失望，每日非常努力工作，好想證明自己。父母從小對她期望極高，家裏的人都很有成就。四十年來自己一直在追著趕著。
疾病焦慮障礙症 Illness anxiety disorder