What is hypochondria?
Everyone worries about their health sometimes, but some people experience more distress about their health issues than others. Hypochondria is a type of anxiety disorder that causes people to excessively worry about their health. People with hypochondria are informally called hypochondriacs, and they tend 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 it specifically. When left untreated, hypochondria can cause:
Hypochondria is a real condition, and hypochondriacs really do experience the symptoms of anxiety.
Symptoms of hypochondria
Enduring and 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.
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.
Hypochondriacs really do have these symptoms, but their focus on them is disproportionate. You can probably remember many times when you experienced these symptoms when you weren’t ill with anything at all. For people with hypochondria, these symptoms are very worrisome even when they are not severe.
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.
Disbelief of contrary information
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. 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.
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.
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.
People whose parents were hypochondriacs are more likely to be a hypochondriac themselves. This may be caused by genetics, or due to the effect 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 behavior 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.
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Diagnosis for hypochondria
Doctors diagnose hypochondria using clinical rubrics that compare a person’s behaviors 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.
Treatments for hypochondria
The most common treatment for hypochondria is cognitive-behavioral 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.
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Current Psychiatry Reviews: "Pharmacological Treatments for Hypochondriasis: A Review."
Current Psychiatry Reports: "Health anxiety: current perspectives and future directions."
Cognition and Emotion: "General threat and health-related attention biases in illness anxiety disorder. A brief research report."
Expert Review of Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research: "Cognitive behavior therapy for health anxiety: systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical efficacy and health economic outcomes."
Journal of the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists: "Hypochondria: the worried well."
The Journal of Psychosomatic Research: "DSM-5 illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder: Comorbidity, correlates, and overlap with DSM-IV hypochondriasis."
The Psychiatrics Clinic of North America: "Hypochondriasis and its relationship to obsessive-compulsive disorder."
Scandinavian Academy of Psychiatry: "Predictors and consequences of health anxiety symptoms: a novel twin modeling study."
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