Somatoform disorders are mental illnesses that cause bodily symptoms, including pain. The symptoms can't be traced back to any physical cause. And they are not the result of substance abuse or another mental illness.
People with somatoform disorders are not faking their symptoms. The pain and other problems they experience are real. The symptoms can significantly affect daily functioning.
Doctors need to perform many tests to rule out other possible causes before they diagnose a somatoform disorder.
A diagnosis of a somatoform disorder can create a lot of stress and frustration for patients. They may feel unsatisfied that there's no known explanation for their symptoms. Stress often leads patients to become more worried about their health. This creates a vicious cycle that can persist for years.
Symptoms and signs of dissociative disorders depend on the type and severity, but may include:
- Feeling disconnected from yourself
- Problems with handling intense emotions
- Sudden and unexpected shifts in mood – for example, feeling very sad for no reason
- Depression or anxiety problems, or both
- Feeling as though the world is distorted or not real (called ‘derealisation’)
- Memory problems that aren’t linked to physical injury or medical conditions
- Other cognitive (thought-related) problems such as concentration problems
- Significant memory lapses such as forgetting important personal information
- Feeling compelled to behave in a certain way
Most mental health professionals believe that the underlying cause of dissociative disorders is chronic trauma in childhood. Examples of trauma included repeated physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect. Unpredictable or frightening family environments may also cause the child to ‘disconnect’ from reality during times of stress. It seems that the severity of the dissociative disorder in adulthood is directly related to the severity of the childhood trauma.
The effectiveness of treatments for dissociative disorders has not been studied. Treatment options are based on case studies, not research. Generally speaking, treatment may take many years. Options may include:
A safe environment – doctors will try to get the person to feel safe and relaxed, which is enough to trigger memory recall in some people with dissociative disorders.
Psychiatric Drugs – such as barbiturates.
Hypnosis – may help to recover repressed memories, although this form of treatment for dissociative disorders is considered controversial.
Psychotherapy – also known as ‘talk therapy’ or counselling, which is usually needed for the long term. Examples include cognitive therapy and psychoanalysis.
Stress management – since stress can trigger symptoms.