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Psychol Med. 2000 Jul;30(4):931-41.

Attachment style in patients with unexplained physical complaints.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park Institute of Psychiatry, London.



Patients who present with physical symptoms that lack an organic explanation are common, difficult to help and poorly understood. Their medical help-seeking is a form of care-eliciting behaviour and, as such, may be understandable in terms of attachment style. Adult attachment style influences functioning in relationships, and may affect help-seeking behaviour from professional carers such as the family doctor.


A consecutive sample of 2,042 primary-care attenders completed questionnaires on: the reason for consultation, attribution of symptoms, psychiatric distress (GHQ), somatic distress (BSI), and self-reported adult attachment style (ASQ). Their doctors rated presentations into explained physical, unexplained physical, or psychological.


There is a powerful relationship between type of presentation and adult attachment style. Both abnormal attachment and level of psychiatric distress increased significantly from the explained physical group, through the unexplained physical group to the group who presented psychologically. Logistic regression models determined three explanatory variables that made significant independent contributions to presentation type: psychiatric distress, attachment style and symptom attribution.


Presentation to the doctor with unexplained physical symptoms is associated with both higher levels of psychiatric symptoms and abnormal attachment style when compared to presentations with organic physical symptoms. Patients who present overt psychological symptoms suffer more psychiatric distress and have more abnormal attachment than those presenting physical symptoms (either organically explained or unexplained). Models to explain these findings are discussed.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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