March 6, 2020

*5 Do's and Don'ts for Somatic Symptoms by Scott Kampschaefer

Do you have physical complaints and keep going to the doctor, who tells you there’s nothing wrong with you?  If this keeps happening to you, you probably have somatic symptoms that often are related to trauma. Keep reading then.  

What Are Somatic Symptoms and How Common Are They?

Somatization is basically any physical symptom that doesn’t have a physical cause, and it is a very common experience.  It can be especially common for people in certain cultural groups, and is often related to anxiety, depression, and trauma.  The Cleveland Clinic says it affects between 5 and 7 percent of the population, but I see it fairly often in my practice with clients who have trauma issues.  

How Somatic Symptoms Show Up

It happens when you have some physical disturbance, pain somewhere or a strange physical sensation you can’t otherwise account for.  You go to the doctor and they run tests that show nothing, nada, no trace of a problem where you were convinced something was a problem. You’re left scratching your head and the pain or sensation keeps coming up despite the doctor’s reassurance that nothing was wrong. It is especially the case if you experience distress about having the pain or sensation.  Some people might notice this, but not get upset about it. In your case, it can be very upsetting. That’s how it gets diagnosed.  

How Are Somatic Symptoms Treated?

Trauma therapy is one way somatic symptom disorder is treated.  If there is an underlying anxiety, trauma, or depressive disorder, then treating that is the most effective way to get rid of it.  The main thing to know is that you have a strong mind-body connection with this problem, and that is a good thing!  The reason why is that your body is trying to tell you to pay attention to what’s going on and that there’s something wrong.  It’s just that the problem isn’t where you thought it was. It’s somewhere else. If you’ve ever heard the saying ‘It’s all in your head,’ then you’ve got the idea.

You’re Not to Blame for Somatic Symptoms

The temptation is to blame yourself if someone tells you ‘It’s all in your head,’ but that only makes things worse.  You give yourself a guilt trip for having these, but very often the culprit is some traumatic experience earlier in life.  Often this happens in childhood, in which case you are definitely not to blame for it! The main thing to keep in mind is that the body registers these traumatic experiences and stores them somehow so that they’ll come up when you need to work on them with therapy help. 

What to Do and What Not to Do for Somatic Symptom Disorder

  1. Don’t seek more reassurance there’s nothing wrong with you:  If you’ve already gotten 15 tests on the same issue that have come up negative, you’ve probably gotten enough information the origin of your problem is not physical.
  2. Do seek out therapy help.  You could look for therapists who specialize in somatic symptom disorder, but you could also look for someone who specializes in anxiety and/or trauma disorders.  All of them will probably be able to help you.  
  3. Don’t focus on the pain or sensation that’s bothering you.  The more you focus on it, the worse it will get. 
  4. Do try doing some kind of relaxation exercise like deep breathing, or just get some exercise instead of hyperfocus on the problem.  
  5. Don’t isolate.  Try to be out among other people as much as possible.  Isolating will lead you to hyperfocus on the somatic complaint.  Try doing some people-watching to help take the focus off yourself for a change.

What I Can Do for Somatic Symptoms

I’ve been working with clients who struggle with somatic symptoms virtually my entire career, and can assure you they are treatable.  They practically always go away with a combination of relaxation techniques and by using some form of trauma therapy. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is one such therapy, and has an excellent track record for helping people alleviate underlying depression, anxiety, and trauma that is often related to somatic symptoms.  I urge you to give a licensed EMDR practitioner like me or Nicole a call if you are ready to get the help you need to get past somatic symptoms and what may be contributing to them. It may be the best money you’ve ever spent, and probably better than continuing to go to endless doctor’s appointments to hear the same thing you’ve been hearing all along.  

About the author:  Scott Kampschaefer, LCSW is a private practice therapist in Austin, Texas.  He has an extensive background in working with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder at a clinic for older adults with these disorders in Austin.  He now works with adults and adolescents 14 and up in private practice. His e-book is entitled Life’s Lessons from the Young and the Old and is available for purchase on Amazon.

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