Psychosomatic Disorders: Definition, Causes & Examples

Instructor: Jennifer Kinder
Explore what psychosomatic disorders are and what contributes to their development. Learn the types of psychosomatic disorders illustrated with real life examples.

Psychosomatic Disorders

Kevin has lots of bizarre symptoms that are concerning to him. Sometimes he feels like he has a lump in his throat that's so large he can't swallow. Sometimes he loses his hearing for several hours at a time and then regains it for no known reason. Other times he loses feeling in his left hand and he is unable to move his fingers.

Kevin has noticed these symptoms developed after his divorce was initiated and are worse after meetings with his attorney. He has gone to numerous doctor appointments over the last six months. Doctors have very rigorously and thoroughly examined him and conducted tests, including blood work and brain imaging. He passes each test with flying colors and his doctors say that he's in great health. His doctor believes that Kevin might have more of a psychological problem, and sends him to a psychologist for evaluation and treatment.

Kevin is likely experiencing something called 'conversion disorder.' Conversion disorder is a type of psychosomatic disorder that involves neurological symptoms that aren't fully explained by a medical condition, which is made worse by mental health issues.

Psychosomatic disorders, like conversion disorder, are conditions which involve both physical and psychological components. Their development usually involves a genetic predisposition to developing mental health issues and can be triggered by stressful life events. Psychosomatic disorders are often puzzling and difficult for medical and mental health providers to treat. They generally fall into three categories, which we'll cover now.

Types of Psychosomatic Disorders

Psychological Issue

The first type of psychosomatic disorder involves a medical issue likely made worse by a psychological issue. This is often a presumption, as research has not found a specific physical cause of the medical condition. Instead researchers have found mental health issues often accompany it. This link is also suspected because effective treatment often involves the use of antidepressant medications. Examples of this type of psychosomatic disorder are fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, or multiple chemical sensitivity.

Example:

Jon can be easily described as being a really anxious guy. He feels nervous in almost any situation and around most people, unless he knows you really well. He's also incredibly sensitive to being around certain non-natural substances. He can't stand to be near a freshly painted room, or in a carpeted room instead of one with hard floors. He can barely tolerate sitting in the waiting room at his doctor's office because of the vinyl chairs. Jon will feel nauseated, light headed, his nose will become stopped up, and sometimes his chest will feel tight. The odd thing is that Jon smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, and this doesn't seem to bother him at all. Jon's health checks out just fine and his doctor concludes he has multiple chemical sensitivities, or an unexplained sensitivity to different chemicals for unknown reasons, with an inconsistent presentation of symptoms.

Medical Conditions

The second type of psychosomatic disorder involves mental health symptoms which are made worse by a medical condition. This could be due to adjusting to a life-altering medical diagnosis such as cancer, or even diabetes.

Example:

Stella has always struggled with some depression and anxiety. Since she was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago, she can't seem to get a hold of either. Right after the diagnosis, she was expectedly shocked, scared, and sad. She assumed that by now she would feel better. After all, she's been in remission for six months, the doctors say they caught it early, and even joked that she had 'the good breast cancer.' However, she's still struggling to adjust. She often feels depressed that she was diagnosed to begin with and terrified it will come back. Stella's doctor is worried about her depression and suggests she join a cancer survivor support group.

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