Somatic symptom disorder is a very specific and potentially problematic disorder. This mental health disorder typically causes a person to focus excessively on physical symptoms. These can vary greatly and can cause intense worry, distress, and problems for the individual.

With this disorder, a person may or may not be diagnosed with a medical condition that is to blame for the symptoms. However, with this in mind, the person’s reaction and fixation to the medically unexplained symptoms is not considered normal. Somatic symptom disorder and substance abuse is a dangerous mix since addiction may worsen that type of disorder.

On the surface, this may not seem like a big deal compared to other mental disorders, but many issues and consequences can arise over time. Somatization disorder should be taken seriously and diagnosed with care. A person’s excessive distress and feelings can lead to worse situations like suicide attempts and substance abuse. It’s important to look at the signs and symptoms related to somatic symptom disorder and seek help from mental health professionals.

At Behavioral Health Centers, we’re ready to help you or a loved one improve their situation and mental health conditions. We understand how serious somatic symptom disorder can be (especially when it is intertwined with substance abuse). If you or a loved one is struggling with somatic symptom disorder and substance abuse, we’re ready to help you today at Behavioral Health Centers.

For your treatment options, you can reach us here: 772-774-3872.

What is Somatic Symptom Disorder?

Somatic symptom disorder is the feeling that something is wrong with you because of certain or multiple somatic symptoms. These particular physical symptoms may be caused by medical conditions and at certain times, they may not. The symptoms can vary greatly in severity and are usually different on a case-by-case basis. If someone has somatic symptom disorder, they do not act normally about their symptoms.

A person may automatically think the worst about how they are feeling even though they only have mild symptoms. They may consistently and frequently seek medical attention. They may continue looking for an explanation even if the possibility of a serious condition has already been excluded by a physical exam. Typically, these somatic symptoms and health concerns become the center point of a person’s life. It can be hard for the person to function and focus, this can eventually lead to disability and other related disorders such as addiction or anxiety disorders.

Those dealing with severe somatic symptom disorder will experience intense emotional and physical stress. This is where treatment from your mental health provider may be able to help a person cope with their symptoms. This can affect a person’s mental state and entire livelihood if left untreated.

man experiencing functional somatic symptoms in need of mental health provider

The Signs and Symptoms of Somatic Symptom Disorder

There are certain behaviors and tendencies that can indicate possible somatic symptom disorder. Before going into these signs, it’s important to speak on the symptoms of the disorder. The symptoms someone may be experiencing may vary and could possibly be a sign of an underlying health condition. Somatic symptom disorder typically includes these symptoms:

  • Can be directly related to a medical condition (heart disease, cancer, etc.) or may be unrelated to any medical cause (that can be identified).
  • May be singular, multiple, or varying.
  • May include specific sensations, which can include shortness of breath, general symptoms (chronic fatigue syndrome, weakness, etc.), or pain.

  • Can range anywhere from mild to moderate to severe.

Pain is usually the most common symptom in most cases; other symptoms may include nausea and diarrhea. However, regardless of the symptoms, a person dealing with somatic symptom disorder will have continuous feelings and behaviors due to these symptoms. These can make it hard to function and can actually lead to disabilities if left untreated. The biggest indicator of somatic symptom disorder is the excessive reactions they have toward their health concerns (massive distress and negative emotions).

The signs of possible somatic symptom disorder can be seen through intense worry and distress, even if a medical concern is not addressed. Make sure to pay attention if you or a loved one has one or more symptoms so you can get help from mental health care professionals. Possible signs of the somatic symptom disorder include the following behaviors/thoughts:

  • Frequently looking for body abnormalities and associated health concerns

  • Consistent and frequent worry about their potential illness
  • Excessive thoughts that physical activity will bring damage to their body

  • The belief that physical symptoms are signs of a serious physical illness
  • The belief that the physical feelings/sensations are harmful or threatening
  • Being disappointed or skeptical about medical evaluations and treatment
  • Fear that their symptoms are serious (even without any evidence to support it)
  • Intense impairment, much more than would be expected from a medical condition
  • Unresponsive to treatment or strangely sensitive to medication (side-effects in particular)
  • Constant visits to the doctors (which fail to relieve concerns, sometimes making them worse)

These behaviors related to somatic symptom disorder burden the daily life of a person and can indicate a bigger issue. The somatic disorder is more than just the physical symptoms; it is more so the psychological symptoms and reaction to the possible illness. This is where the real issues can tend to occur, especially if a person spends every day distressed and worries about their health and the future. Even if there is no confirmation of a serious illness, the person will still suffer and be stressed. This can also lead to other mental disorders such as functional neurological symptom disorder.

Somatic Symptom Disorder and Substance Abuse

Due to the excessive reaction to physical symptoms, a person has risk factors for developing a co-occurring disorder. Co-occurring disorders are when a person is struggling with somatic symptoms and related substance use disorder.

This is because people dealing with a somatic disorder may frequently turn to substances to ease their symptoms. This can be over-the-counter drugs, opiates, marijuana, alcohol, or even benzodiazepines. Over time a person may continue to use these until a substance addiction emerges.

A person can become dependent on these drugs to help them relieve their mental and physical symptoms. In certain instances, some substances can actually increase a person’s sensitivity to pain over time (especially with opiates). This can cause several issues down the line, one of which is hyperalgesia, which messes with a person’s physiological and psychosomatic perception. In simple terms, this can exacerbate a person’s somatic symptom disorder and make it even harder to function.

woman with psychological factors that can result in somatic disorder

Somatic Symptom Disorder and Alcohol

Alcohol is often abused to cope with the psychological and somatic distress caused by the disorder. It is not uncommon to see people struggling with mental issues turn to alcohol for self-medication. People see alcohol as a way to alleviate or mask some of the physical symptoms. While this may be true in the short term after the effects of alcohol have worn off, the symptoms usually come back worse and a person will feel depression and anxiety. Over time, worse effects can begin to deteriorate the body (liver disease, heart disease, etc)

Somatic Symptom Disorder and Opioids

Opioids on their own are usually used to manage pain within a person. These substances can relieve some of the feelings of discomfort and pain, especially for those with somatic disorders. However, due to the nature of somatic symptom disorder, it doesn’t take long for someone to fall into dependency. Additionally, hyperalgesia (heightened sensitivity to pain) can make things even worse over time. Opioids can be very addictive and a person can easily develop a dependency if they are not careful.

Somatic Symptom Disorder and Drug Abuse

The effects of somatic symptom disorder can take a huge toll on a person’s mind and body. Some people who suffer from somatic symptom disorder experience depression and anxiety. A feeling of hopelessness may overcome them because of their unrelenting symptoms.

In severe cases, a person may attempt suicide or will have significant issues adapting to life. This is why a person may be quick to turn to drugs or substances. This can eventually evolve into full-blown addiction, which in turn will turn to a co-occurring disorder (or dual diagnosis). This occurs when a person is struggling with a mental illness (in this case somatic disorder) and drug addiction. In treatment, substance abuse and other mental health disorders are treated simultaneously but separately. These cases are usually more severe and usually involve an inpatient treatment program.

Somatic Symptom Disorder Treatment at Behavioral Health Centers

While somatic symptom disorder can be painful and stressful, there is always help around the corner. Centers like Behavioral Health Centers can help you or a loved one recover successfully and live a better, cleaner life. Treating somatic symptom disorder usually involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication from an experienced mental health professional. It is a mental illness, so much of it will be understanding and dealing with a person’s intense worry over the symptoms. Let’s take a look at some of the treatment options available to you and your family.

CBT for mental illness - anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorders

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Other Therapies

The main psychotherapy that will be used is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This talk therapy method helps a person learn how to reduce stress and the physical symptoms they may be experiencing. Overall, Cognitive Behavior Therapy is vital in the treatment process and allows a person to cope and address their mental concerns and preoccupations. Family therapy can also be used as a form of psychotherapy depending on the case.

Medication for people with health anxiety


Medication is also a vital part of the process. Antidepressant medication can reduce some of the symptoms of depression and pain. During somatic disorder treatment, medication can come in handy when given at an advised dose. With this being said, it’s important to consult with your doctor or therapist before trying any antidepressants or drugs (especially in co-occurring disorders).

Let Us Help you Today

At Behavioral Health Centers, we’re ready to help you with your journey towards a healthy mind and life. Somatic symptom disorder can be painful and disorienting but with the right guidance from an experienced mental health professional, you can recover. Don’t wait to get proper treatment. Contact us today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs and available treatment resources.

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Medically reviewed by:

Dr. K. Dodge, PhD, MSPH, MSW

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