Somatoform disorders are characterized by real physical symptoms that cannot be fully explained by a medical condition, the effects of a drug, or another mental disorder. People with somatoform disorders do not fake symptoms or produce symptoms intentionally.
Three common somatoform disorders are somatization disorder, conversion disorder, and hypochondriasis.
Somatization disorder was formerly called hysteria or Briquet’s syndrome. People with somatization disorder experience a wide variety of physical symptoms, such as pain and gastrointestinal, sexual, and pseudoneurological problems. The disorder usually affects women, begins before age thirty, and continues for many years.
Conversion disorder is characterized by symptoms that affect voluntary motor functioning or sensory functioning. These symptoms cannot be explained medically. A conflict or other stressor precedes the onset or exacerbation of these symptoms, which implies a relationship between the symptoms and psychological factors.
Example: After being sexually assaulted, a young girl loses the ability to speak. Her inability to speak has no medical explanation.
People with hypochondriasis are preoccupied with fears that they have a serious disease. They base these fears on misinterpretations of physical symptoms. People with this disorder continue to worry about having a serious medical problem even after they receive reassurances to the contrary. People with hypochondriasis, however, are not delusional—they can acknowledge that their worries might be excessive.
Etiology of Somatoform Disorders
Personality, cognitive factors, and learning appear to be involved in the etiology of somatoform disorders.
Some researchers have suggested that people with histrionic personality traits are more likely to develop somatoform disorders. Histrionic people enjoy being the center of attention. They tend to be self-focused, excitable, highly open to suggestion, very emotional, and dramatic.
Researchers have proposed that several cognitive factors contribute to somatoform disorders:
- People with these disorders may pay too much attention to bodily sensations.
- They may make catastrophic conclusions when they experience minor symptoms.
- They may have distorted ideas about good health and expect healthy people to be free of any symptoms or discomfort.
People with somatoform disorders may learn to adopt a sick role because they are reinforced for being sick. Rewards that help to maintain sickness include attention and sympathy from others and avoidance of work and family challenges.