Glum and Glummer

Gigi Marino
September 01, 1999

We all know at least one neurotic, Woody-Allen type who is always on the verge of dying according to the ailment of the hour—be it a rare cancer, brain tumor, or stubbed toe.

People who obsess about symptoms that aren't really there suffer from somataform disorders (soma is the Greek word for body), like hypochondriasis, which is the unrealistic fear of having a serious illness despite evidence to the contrary, or somatization disorder, a condition in which an individual persistently complains of physical symptoms when nothing wrong can be found.

"These people are the extreme of the extreme," says Keith Aronson, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. "They're always going to doctors. Their behavior burdens the health-care system with unnecessary diagnostic tests and even invasive surgeries, which always have risks."

There are two widely held and diverse theories about people who over-report somatic symptoms, Aronson says. One camp holds that these individuals are indeed hypersensitive, more attuned to their bodies than average people are, as many of them claim. The other camp postulates that these so-called "emotionally reactive" individuals are not particularly in tune with their bodies but simply have a heightened inclination to complain—not just about their bodies, but about their moods too, and about all other aspects of their lives.

In a recent study, Aronson tested 100 subjects for somatic sensitivity by administering a heartbeat-detection test. Participants were played a series of ten tones that were either in synch or out of synch with their own heartbeat. They made this judgment 100 times. The emotionally reactive individuals fared poorly on this task, Aronson found. Thus, the people who claimed to be in tune with their bodies evidently are not.

In addition to the heartbeat test, Aronson reports, his subjects kept a daily log for two months, in which they reported their somatic symptoms, moods, and daily hassles with relationships, money, and other stressors. When he later asked the emotionally reactive individuals about the events they had recorded, however, they typically misremembered situations as being worse than those initial impressions. Says Aronson, "These people tend to remember the unpleasant, not the good stuff. Instead of looking through rose-colored glasses, they see the world through mud-colored lenses."

"So many people express emotions through physical symptoms," he continues. "Maybe for some people, it's easier to talk about a physical ache than an emotional one." The irony, he notes, is that this suppression of emotion not only affects the individuals involved, but has social and economic repercussions as well. "What happens with these people is that when they can't find a doctor who can diagnose their symptoms, they go doctor shopping," says Aronson, "which is one of the things that drives the cost of health-care up. Maybe doctors should take a few minutes and just acknowledge that the patient is going through a hard time."

Keith Aronson is a doctoral candidate in psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 502 Moore Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1720; kra105@psu.edu. His adviser is Karen Quigley, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 519 Moore Bldg., University Park PA 16802; 814-863-6023; ksq1@psu.edu. His research was supported by a Research and Graduate Studies Office Dissertation Grant from the Graduate School. Gigi Marino teaches writing in the English Department at Penn State.

Last Updated September 01, 1999