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Aim: The aim of the present study was to determine dissatisfaction with body appearance and bodily functions and to assess self-esteem in somatizing patients.
Methods: Body image and self-esteem were investigated in 128 women; 34 of those had diagnosed somatoform disorders, 50 were breast cancer patients with total mastectomy surgery alone, and 44 were healthy subjects. Body image and self-esteem were assessed using the Body Cathexis Scale and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.
Results: The two clinical groups did not differ from one another (z = −1.832, P = 0.067), but differed from healthy controls in terms of body image (somatizing patients vs healthy controls, z = −3.628, P < 0.001; total mastectomy patients vs healthy controls, z = −3.172, P = 0.002). They also did not differ significantly in terms of self-esteem (z = −0.936, P = 0.349) when depressive symptoms were controlled. No statistically significant difference was observed between total mastectomy patients and healthy controls in terms of self-esteem (z = −1.727, P = 0.084). The lower levels of self-esteem in somatizing patients were largely mediated by depressive symptoms. Depressed and non-depressed somatizing patients differed significantly from healthy controls with respect to their self-esteem and body image.
Conclusions: Somatizing patients who were dissatisfied with their bodily functions and appearance had lower levels of self-esteem and high comorbidity of depression. In clinical practice it is suggested that clinicians should take into account psychiatric comorbidity, self-esteem, and body image in somatizing patients when planning treatment approaches.
BODY IMAGE REFERS to one's feelings, perceptions, and attitudes towards one's physical self, appearance, overall wholeness, functionality, and ability to relate to others. Body image is also defined as part of an individual's self-worth.1 The literature suggests a strong link between body image and self-esteem,2,3 because one of the important domains of self-esteem is body esteem, which is related to feelings about one's general appearance or attributions concerning others' evaluation of appearance and weight.4 Disturbances in body image generally occur when there is a discrepancy between the way one has formerly perceived himself/herself and how he/she now perceives himself/herself after a physical or a psychiatric illness. In the literature it has been found that breast cancer and head and neck cancers are associated negatively with body image.5–8 As well as cancers, rheumatic diseases and obesity were some of the diseases that were associated with negative body image.9,10 In addition, numerous studies have examined body image and self-esteem in psychiatric disorders. Mendelson et al. have reported that women with eating disorders rate themselves significantly lower on body esteem and self-esteem as compared to healthy subjects; furthermore, they found a positive relationship between body esteem and self-esteem among women with eating disorders but not among healthy subjects.2
Beyond the literature knowledge concerning body image and self-esteem in different medical and psychiatric diseases, there is a lack of data about body image disturbances and self-esteem in somatizing patients.
There is much more evidence that the frequency of somatoform disorders is similar across cultures, but somatic expression of distress is a universal phenomenon,11 its manifestations can vary across cultures. In less-developed countries, somatic complaint might be an indicator of unmet psychiatric need, while the same symptom in more developed countries might be a symbol of psychosocial distress.12 The question of why these patients somatize is still an important one that needs to be answered. Physical symptoms in somatizing patients have a somatosensory amplification, which refers to the tendency to experience somatic sensations as intense, noxious, or disturbing. In addition to somatosensory amplification theory, the social stigma associated with mental illness may be an important determinant of the somatic expression of emotional distress, because in many contexts physical illness is more socially acceptable than psychiatric problems.13 Somatization of any degree is associated with the female gender, as well as lower educational level, lower household income, and living in a rural area.14,15
Medically unexplained somatic symptoms are widely prevalent in primary care settings and general hospitals, and they are associated with increased health-care utilization in many countries as well as in Turkey. The management of somatoform disorders is very difficult, and the physical symptoms tend to become chronic and refractory to usual treatments. The literature findings emphasizing negative body image and self-esteem in a variety of psychiatric disorders led us to suggest a hypothesis that somatizing patients might have some problems not only with their bodily functions but with their body appearance as well. Therefore, alternative therapies other than pharmacotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, such as body-oriented approaches in psychotherapy, regular exercise, or aerobic dance therapy, were also shown to have positive impact on body image16,17 and could serve as an alternative or a complementary treatment option for somatizing patients. We decided to test this hypothesis by comparing somatizing patients with breast cancer patients and healthy subjects in order to assess body appearance and bodily functions. To our knowledge there is no study addressing body image concerns and self-esteem in somatizing patients in Turkey.
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The present results confirmed that somatizing patients were dissatisfied with both their bodily functions and appearance. In other words, somatizing patients had an impaired body image at least as much as total mastectomy patients did. In addition, both somatizing and total mastectomy patients did not differ significantly from one another based on self-esteem when depression was controlled. The somatizing patients did differ significantly, however, in terms of self-esteem when compared with healthy subjects.
The present findings indicated, as we anticipated, that somatizing patients were less college educated than total mastectomy patients and healthy controls. Therefore, our study demonstrated consistent results with previous findings.14,15
In the present study the lower levels of self-esteem in somatizing patients were significantly related with depression. This finding was consistent with that reported by Phillips et al., in which the relationship between body dysmorphic disorder severity and self-esteem was found to be largely mediated by depressive symptoms.27
In addition to the similar self-esteem profile, somatizing patients and total mastectomy patients differed from healthy controls, but not from each other, with respect to the greater severity of their body image symptoms. Contrary to self-esteem, however, body image was not affected by depressive symptoms.
We found that >50% of somatizing patients had comorbid depression. This finding was consistent with the related literature.18 Low self-esteem is one of the symptoms of depression, and low self-esteem and depression are found to be strongly correlated in many studies.28 Nonetheless, there is lack of knowledge about their prospective effects on each other to determine whether low self-esteem serves as a risk factor for depression, or whether low self-esteem is an outcome not a cause of depression. These hypotheses were tested in a recent study, and it was found that low self-esteem predicted subsequent levels of depression, but depression did not predict subsequent levels of self-esteem.29 In the present study we found that somatizing patients had similar levels of self-esteem as compared to total mastectomy patients, but they had lower levels of self-esteem as compared to healthy controls when depression was controlled. Therefore, we can suggest that not only is self-esteem low among somatizing patients, but it diminishes even more when they are depressed.
As we discussed above, the two clinical patient groups did not differ from each other with respect to body image and self-esteem. Somatizing patients' body image was at least as impaired as the total mastectomy patients' body image. The latter is perhaps the most important finding of the present study. In breast cancer cases, impaired body image often results from radical treatments on the body itself. In addition, breast cancer patients have to cope with the reality of an organ loss, which is in itself closely associated with self-esteem, sexuality, as well as femininity.30,31 External breast prostheses, which are frequently worn by total mastectomy patients, may help them cope with breast loss, but impaired body image is not repaired with external breast prostheses.32 In contrast, in somatizing patients, although there is no real loss of an organ or no disturbed body part or organ function, the patient complains about impaired body functions, but they do not complain about the appearance of their body or body parts. In this respect, we believe that somatizing patients' perception of poorer body image (similar to total mastectomy patients) is a very important finding and may indicate dissatisfaction with their body appearance.
In the present study we found a positive association between body image and self-esteem in total mastectomy and in non-depressed somatizing patients, but we failed to find a similar association both in depressed somatizing patients and in healthy controls. Therefore, in non-depressed somatizing and total mastectomy patients this finding was consistent with studies reporting a correlation between poor body image and poor self-esteem.2,3,33 The reason we could not find a similar relationship between body image and self-esteem in depressed somatizing patients may be due to the effect of depression. As a second explanation, these results could be totally random due to the limited number of participants.
Body image refers to the perception of one's body: an attitude about one's physical self, appearance, overall wholeness, functionality, and ability to relate to others. Conceptualization of body image through this perspective gives us some important clues about a person's inner world. First, early childhood trauma, social difficulties, and emotional distress may lead to impairment in body image. Second, we suggest that the body dissatisfaction seen among somatizing patients may be considered as the body-related equivalent of psychopathological disturbances or symbolic bodily represented emotional distress. Third, lower educational level may also lead to impairment in body image as well as in the manifestation of somatization.
There were some limitations to the present study. First, this was a cross-sectional, case–control study conducted within a small sample in only one institution. Thus, the results could not be generalized to the overall population of women. Second, we excluded male somatizers in order to form a unique sample. In the literature, it has been suggested that the relation between gender and somatization is complex and poorly understood. Although it has been a common/traditional belief that women somatize more than men, recent studies have produced inconsistent results.34,35 Therefore, the lack of male subjects in the current study may be a shortcoming that influenced the findings. Third, the current study was a case–control study, so conclusions relating to causality are not possible. The results suggest only an important relationship between body image, self-esteem, and somatization.
Identifying body image and self-esteem concepts in somatizing patients can provide useful information for choosing appropriate psychological therapy. Based on a literature search, there is no exact knowledge on the differences in managing depressed or non-depressed somatizing patients. Only in a review article was this issue investigated, and the author of that article concluded that there are limited data in this area.36 But in recent studies it has been found that somatization increases disability, medical utilization, and costs independent of medical or psychiatric comorbidity.37,38 Therefore, much of the influence that depressive and anxiety disorders exert on utilization is moderated through their effect on somatization. In line with these findings, we suggest that comorbidity of depression and anxiety in somatization could increase the severity of somatization and reduce its response to treatment. Therefore, to manage somatization we need new therapy options or combined treatments other than pharmacotherapy. Consistent with this assumption, one of the body-oriented approaches in psychotherapy, bioenergetic analysis, assumes that important life experiences are retained not only in the psychic subconscious but also in the body, where they are expressed in respiration, posture, movement as well as experience and behavior.39 In a recent study this technique was shown to be effective in the treatment of Turkish immigrants with chronic somatoform disorders.16 In addition, cognitive behavioral therapy has been reported to be the best established treatment for a variety of somatoform disorders.40 Beyond these psychological treatments, regular exercise and aerobic dance therapy were shown to have positive impact on body image.17 Therefore in clinical practice we suggest that clinicians should take into account the comorbid psychiatric disorders as well as the self-esteem and body image concerns of somatizing patients when planning treatment approaches.
In conclusion, we have demonstrated that somatizing patients have impaired body image and low self-esteem at least as much as total mastectomy patients do; also, they have poorer body image and self-esteem compared with healthy controls. In addition, low self-esteem in the somatizing patient group becomes even lower if those patients are depressed. The present findings suggest that although somatizing patients complain of ambiguous physical symptoms and they express dissatisfaction with their bodily functions and organs, they may have even more serious problems with their physical appearance and self-esteem that could be hidden deep inside their physical bodily complaints. We therefore demonstrated a relationship between poor body image and somatization, but it is yet unclear whether poor body image predisposes to somatization.