BY: NADIA ZAIDI
Illustration by Xulin Wang
It’s normal to worry about your health — in fact, it’s often necessary. A growing mole, or a heart flutter warrants concern. Showing your doctor suspect growths or sensations is responsible, sensible, and preventable. But for some people, each and every bodily fluctuation is a sign that something is terribly wrong, and that immediate diagnosis is necessary.
Excessive levels of fixation and obsession over one’s health is known as Somatic Symptom Disorder. More popularly known as hypochondria, it affects most people in early adulthood, and is not under a person’s “voluntary control.”
Somatic symptom disorder can be characterized as one of the most complex and debilitating mental illnesses. It’s also one of the most under-researched conditions and most doctors don’t know how to approach and treat patients with this disorder.
A large part of the issue is the disorder’s association with dramatization and humour. Severe health anxiety is misinterpreted as some sort of “Google syndrome.” Each of us is guilty of looking up a physical ailment online for assurance or confirmation, only to be met with a pseudo self-diagnosis. Nonetheless, someone with this condition believes that they have a terminal illness and actually manifest these searched symptoms. Sometimes the person might actually have a condition, but their level of worry is disproportionate to the condition.
Stigma compounds the disorder and makes it difficult to treat. It also places stress on medical room wait times, and healthcare practitioners. Studies show that the number of people who run to the emergency room for non-emergency situations is increasing, and a major strain on Canadian health care dollars.
But it’s also become a convenient excuse for physicians to dismiss complaints. Often times, doctors refuse to see patients who have a history of repeated visits. At the same time, medical tests, examinations, and consultations almost enable the anxiety to persist. Seeking repeated validation through medical examinations become habitual. Even worse, it might have an opposite effect and fuel other fears altogether. While a normal CT scan would appease most people, somatic symptom disorder patients may question its legitimacy, wondering whether they have an undiscovered ailment.
What causes somatic symptom disorder?
It’s still generally unknown, but there are various factors that influence a person’s susceptibility of having this disorder.
- A history of abuse (sexual and/or physical)
- Learned behaviour from family, or friends.
- Childhood illness that develops into paranoia.
Symptoms that may indicate you have this disorder:
- Excessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours related to your health
- Chronic levels of anxiety related to symptoms
- Repeated doctors visits for unknown or sudden conditions
This disorder presents various functional problems, making it difficult for a person to thrive in their daily environment. Fighting excessive and unhealthy rumination, while consistently checking for disease is time consuming.
The disease can come with a degree of compulsions, such as consistently checking the body for sensations, or changes. Other common compulsions include monitoring your heart rate, or self-examining for potential lumps. It may also extend to excessive amounts of research into potential conditions and calls to medical hotlines and daily pharmacy consultations.
What should we take from this disorder? Well, compassion is a start. Don’t assume that everyone who complains about a potential illness has somatic symptom disorder. Don’t assume that people are making up symptoms for attention, or that they don’t have legitimate health concerns.