Blame, shame and hopelessness: medically unexplained symptoms and the ‘heartsink’ experience


Note: You can read the full article here.

By Louise Stone


BACKGROUND: ‘Heartsink’ patients present a moral dilemma. We recognise their suffering, but at the same time struggle with the feelings they trigger in us. Patients also experience negative feelings. Without a diagnosis they lack a narrative or vocabulary to make sense of their own suffering.

OBJECTIVE: This article explores some of the challenges faced and strategies utilised when managing patients with medically unexplained symptoms.

DISCUSSION: Doctors and patients often experience frustration and helplessness in consultations around medically unexplained symptoms. Without a diagnosis, patients lack social legitimacy as ‘sick’ people with ‘real’ illnesses. They often describe feeling blamed for their own distress. Because of this, they can experience deep feelings of worthlessness and shame. Patients with a history of abuse can be particularly vulnerable. Management includes validating their suffering, helping them construct appropriate explanations for their distress and providing empathic interpersonal care, while minimising the risk of iatrogenic harm.

Source: Stone, Louise. Aust Fam Physician. 2014 Apr;43(4):191-5.

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