Hypochondria – Genuine Condition or Simple Overreaction?
We all worry about our health from time to time, but there is a certain type of person to whom every minor ache and sniffle is a sign of a rare, undiagnosed flesh-eating disease, and OH GOD IT’S CANCER, I’M GOING TO DIE!!!! Yes, I’m talking about hypochondriacs, people who have a type of anxiety disorder that causes them to fixate on their perceptions of certain symptoms. These symptoms may be mild, but in the perception of the hypochondriac, they are dangerous. Even when reassured by a friend or doctor, people with hypochondria may be convinced that their health is quite at risk.
Hypochondria can develop in anyone, but there are a handful of other conditions that often occur alongside it, such as:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Bipolar depression
- Somatic symptom disorder (focusing on physical symptoms that then leads to distress)
Many hypochondriacs don’t seek treatment for the condition specifically. In most instances, they will deny having the condition, which leads to overuse of healthcare resources like doctor time, chronic stress, panic attacks and high blood pressure. It’s important to remember that Hypochondria is a real condition, and hypochondriacs really do experience the symptoms of anxiety.
How to Tell if Someone Is a Hypochondriac?
Extreme anxiety about a person’s self-perceived health problems is the core symptom of hypochondria. This symptom appears in a few different ways, which may or may not be fully present in every person with hypochondria. Let’s look at some of the most common ways this anxiety manifests itself:
Misinterpreting the significance of symptoms: Hypochondriacs fixate on their experience of specific symptoms. Commonly, they are anxious about headaches, fatigue, indigestion, and other minor symptoms that many different illnesses share in common. You need to remember that in these cases, the person does really have these symptoms, but their focus on the symptoms is disproportionate.
Belief in a serious illness: Minor symptoms are perceived as evidence of a looming serious illness by people with hypochondria. Some hypochondriacs worry about a specific condition that matches their symptoms, whereas others have more general anxiousness about becoming critically ill. These concerns make people with hypochondria consult with their doctors frequently.
Disbelieving contrary evidence: When a doctor examines a person with hypochondria who is worried about becoming very sick, it may be clear that the person’s symptoms are not linked to any serious illness. After a doctor advises the person that their symptoms do not warrant their excessive level of worrying, hypochondriacs may not believe them. The disbelief of medical professionals is a significant hypochondriac symptom. Alternatively, people with hypochondria can sometimes accept a doctor’s advice at first, only to question their judgement and return to worrying later on.
Social dysfunction: Hypochondria causes people to experience trouble maintaining their daily life. Social relationships may become strained by episodes of health anxiety. Hypochondriacs may also have trouble maintaining employment if they are frequently absent for attending doctor’s appointments.
Known Causes of Hypochondria
There are several things that may contribute to someone developing hypochondria, but there isn’t any single cause that is known to be the most common.
Inheritance: People whose parents were hypochondriacs are more likely to be hypochondriac themselves. This may be caused by genetics, or because of being raised by someone with health anxiety. People with excessively protective or overbearing parents are also at higher risk.
Other social or anxiety disorders: Having an anxiety disorder may be a factor in developing hypochondria. If a person has trouble communicating their emotions, they may also discuss their health anxieties with others as a way to elicit a connection. When taken to an excess, such behaviour could contribute to hypochondria.
Trauma or abuse: Experiencing physical or emotional trauma can lead to hypochondria. This can include previous health trauma caused by the person having a serious illness, or by observing someone else experience a serious illness. People who experience extreme stress which they cannot relieve are also vulnerable.
Doctors diagnose hypochondria using clinical rubrics that compare a person’s behaviours to the signs and symptoms of the illness. The doctor asks the patients if they experience each of the symptoms of hypochondria while paying attention to their risk factors and information which might suggest that another diagnosis would be more accurate. Likewise, the doctor will compare the person’s history of seeking medical care to see if they have a history of being anxious about having a serious illness.
Can Hypochondria be Treated?
The most common treatment for hypochondria is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is conducted with the help of a licensed therapist, who works with the person to address their health anxieties in a constructive way. With therapy, around 66% of people reduce their level of health anxiety.
For people whose symptoms of health anxiety do not respond to therapy, medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be effective.
Do you know anyone with hypochondria? Share your experiences in the comments below.