A Life-Stress, Emotional Awareness, and Expression Interview for Primary Care Patients With Medically Unexplained Symptoms: A Randomized Controlled Trial

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Abstract

Objective: Lifetime trauma, relationship adversities, and emotional conflicts are elevated in primary care patients with medically unexplained symptoms (MUS), and these risk factors likely trigger or exacerbate symptoms. Helping patients disclose stressors, increase awareness and expression of inhibited emotions, and link emotions to physical symptoms may improve health. We developed an emotional awareness and expression interview that targets stressful life experiences and conflicts and then tested its effects on primary care patients with MUS. Method: Patients (N = 75) with MUS were recruited at a family medicine clinic and randomized to an interview condition or treatment-as-usual (TAU) control condition. In a single 90-min interview in the clinic, the interviewer elicited disclosure of the patient’s stressors, linked them to the patient’s symptom history, and encouraged emotional awareness and expression about unresolved relationship trauma or conflict. At baseline and 6-week follow-up, patients completed self-report measures of their physical and psychological health. Results: Analyses of covariance, controlling for baseline symptoms, compared patients in the interview condition with TAU at 6-week follow-up. Compared with TAU, the interview led to significantly lower pain severity, pain interference, sleep problems, and global psychological symptoms. Conclusions: This study provides preliminary evidence for the value of integrating a disclosure and emotional awareness and expression interview into the primary care setting for patients with MUS.

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