Therapist Anastasia Pollock answers this month's question about hypochondriacs.
I think we all know someone we may consider a hypochondriac (someone who insists that they are ill when they are not or exaggerates physical symptoms). It is hard to know how to help these people and this question gives us a great opportunity to better navigate a very tricky situation.
First, it is important to understand more about somatic symptoms without a medical cause. When a person insists they are ill or in pain, and there is no known medical cause, it is easy to become annoyed and to assume what they are experiencing is not real. However, the reality is that the people with somatic symptoms are in fact experiencing something that is very real and very painful for them.
The nervous system is an interesting thing. It does things that medicine and science cannot always explain. For instance, a very common phenomenon known as phantom limb pain occurs when someone loses a limb but can still feel intense pain where the limb was. The pain is very real, even though the limb is no longer attached.
Like someone who has lost a limb, anyone who experiences a trauma is more likely to experience somatic symptoms without a medical cause. This person`s brother has experienced a major trauma with his stroke and is now dependent on others for functioning. It is understandable after experiencing such a significant traumatic event, this man would be hypersensitive to any ache or pain. His body has been through something he likely never expected to happen and he may have difficulty trusting that his body is not going to betray him again.
To help someone who is experiencing somatic symptoms with no known cause, try the following:
Avoid eye rolling, ignoring, or brushing off what your loved one is saying. Remember, their symptoms are real to them. Open your ears and hear them out fully, not interrupting or trying to talk them out of what they are experiencing.
Validate that what the person is experiencing must be very painful and ask what you can do to emotionally support them through their difficulties. Suggest that they think about talking through some of the emotions they are experiencing. Emotions caught in the body tend to make somatic symptoms much worse. Having a person to listen and validate could make a huge difference in helping the person to release any emotions that may be pent up.
Encourage the person to get help
There is a high likelihood of anxiety and depression with somatic symptoms that don`t have a medical cause. A good therapist could be very helpful in assisting a person to learn skills to reduce anxiety and cope with depression that could exacerbate somatic symptoms. Particularly when there has been a traumatic event, as is the case with the question asked today, good trauma work can relieve the stress and symptoms that have resulted because of the trauma.
Show up with them
Going to therapy can be scary and the reality is that some people may feel shame in seeking help. Going with your loved one can make the process easier and will show them you are on their side and supporting them through their difficult time.
Try to better understand the stress/trauma body connection
Good books such as Bessel van der Kolk`s 'The Body Keeps the Score' or Gabor Mate`s 'When the Body Says No' are both excellent resources for better understanding the connection between stress, trauma, the nervous system and how the body is impacted.
You can get more information about Anastasia here.