Psychosomatic symptoms, also known as psychophysiological or mind-body symptoms, are physical manifestations that are caused by psychological factors. These symptoms occur when emotional or mental distress triggers bodily responses, resulting in physical discomfort or illness. The mind-body connection demonstrates the relationship between our emotions, thoughts, and physical well-being. Stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, and other psychological factors can impact our bodies in profound ways. For instance, chronic stress can lead to muscle tension, headaches, or gastrointestinal issues. Similarly, unresolved emotional trauma may manifest as chronic pain or physical symptoms without any underlying medical explanation. In this blog, I will explain how patients afflicted by OCD experience psychosomatic symptoms and how to treat them.
Health Related Obsessions
Psychosomatic symptoms are diverse and can affect various systems in the body. They can include headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, fatigue, chest pain, dizziness, and even skin conditions. While these symptoms may have a physical appearance, they often lack a clear organic cause and are strongly influenced by psychological factors. When someone obsesses about their health, they can start to develop psychosomatic symptoms. Everyone has psychosomatic symptoms at some point in their life. However, when someone has health related OCD and obsess about their health, they experience significantly more frequent and intense symptoms.
Examples of Psychosomatic Symptoms in OCD Cases
I’ve had countless patients who fear having a heart attack. They typically report having a pounding heart or even feel that their heart is skipping beats. They might feel pain pain or tingling in their left arm, shortness of breath, and/or dizziness. By the time they see me, they have already visited at least one cardiologist. They will typically avoid physical activity or anything that increases their heart rate and frequently check their vitals (smart watches allow compulsions to happen more easily). A patient who fears having ALS describes muscle twitching and tingling in her extremities. She will test her muscles to see if she feels like she has the same kind of strength. Those who obsess about cancer will feel pain where they think they might have it. I’ve had numerous patients fear getting the flesh eating amoeba. They will try to prevent any water entering their nose and mouth and frequently check their temperature. They typically might experience headaches or nausea. Even those patients who struggle with sexually intrusive thoughts will report that they felt tingling sensations in their genitals and signs of arousal despite not being aroused. If you obsess about your body or health, you will have psychosomatic symptoms.
Various exposures are used and are specific to the illness or feared bodily responses to triggers. In addition to the traditional in-vivo exposures (directly confronting a trigger), interoceptive exposures can also be implemented. Interoceptive exposures are small exercises that could prompt similar symptoms to certain illnesses. They are typically used to invoke panic-like symptoms for those struggling with panic disorder. However, I have found them to be equally beneficial for patients who fear symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath, restricted breathing, pounding heart, and more.
Call Us For Help
If you are struggling with psychosomatic symptoms, we can help develop an appropriate treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. Exposure therapy (ERP) typically works quickly depending on symptom severity. As someone does exposures their level of perceived threat of psychosomatic-generated symptoms reduce, which ultimately results in the reduction of frequently and intensity of the symptoms over time. Once psychosomatic symptoms are no longer feared, they typically go away.
You can find more information about OCD on the International OCD Foundation website.
This blog is written by Natalie Noel, LMHC
Anxiety & OCD Treatment Specialists is located in Tampa, Florida. However, we have providers who are licensed in both Florida and New York. We provide both in-person and virtual sessions. Contact us today! 813-812-4940.