You may be concerned about your health, but are you worrying yourself sick?
We all have times when we feel aches or pains and wonder if they’re signs of something more serious. We may even search the web to try to self-diagnose the issue. But most of the time, the fear of something significant subsides along with the symptoms.
For those with hypochondria, the fear never dissipates.
By Lucy Morris
 worry excessively about getting or having a serious disease,
 practice obsessive health-related behaviors like repeatedly checking the body for signs of illness,
 fear an illness is present for at least six months,
 have extreme concern for mild or nonexistent symptoms,
 or have high levels of anxiety about your personal health status,
you might have hypochondria.
Fortunately, it’s treatable.
What Is Hypochondria?
Now referred to as illness anxiety disorder or health anxiety, hypochondria (or hypochondriasis) is a condition in which a person is obsessed or excessively worried that they have a serious health condition, even if physical symptoms are minor or nonexistent. It affects men and women equally and tends to develop during early adulthood.
“Hypochondria is a morbid anxiety about one’s health often associated with numerous and varying symptoms that cannot be attributed to physical disease,” explains Dr. Ronald Jarl, a specialist in family medicine with Galen North Internal Medicine.
For some, the condition manifests as a constant need to visit the doctor, though receiving a clean bill of health rarely provides reassurance. This can result in the desire to constantly switch doctors or “doctor shop.” Conversely, the condition can manifest through extreme avoidance measures, where individuals may refuse to visit the doctor entirely for fear of finding out they have a serious illness, or avoid other people, places, or things that could pose a risk.
Often, hypochondria involves frequently checking the body for lumps, aches, and pains. It may also instigate an overwhelming need to constantly check vital signs like blood pressure and temperature. When you read or hear about a disease, you can be convinced you have it.
A long-term condition, hypochondria can fluctuate in severity, and it may increase with age or during times of stress.
Causes of Hypochondria
In general, the exact cause of this illness anxiety disorder is hard to determine. That being said, certain factors may play a role. Genetics, for one, may leave some individuals more prone to obsessive health concerns; if a family member has or had health anxiety, you’re more likely to as well.
Past experiences may also incite the condition. For instance, if you had a serious illness when you were a child, the fear of something happening again can be overwhelming.
Stressful events can even prompt it, as can a history of other mental disorders like depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, and more. “There can be a lot of overlap with other psychiatric disorders that have similar psychosocial and hereditary causes,” explains Dr. Jarl.
Psychologists suggest that individuals with hypochondria tend to be self-critical or perfectionist, and it’s believed they may have a lower threshold for pain or be more sensitive to internal sensations.
“With most anxiety disorders, there is hyper-vigilance to both the internal and external surroundings,” says Dr. John Beckner, a psychiatrist with Hamilton Physician Group – Behavioral Health. “People are more aware of the bodily aches and pains that, for the most part, we would consider normal.”
Yep, there’s a term for that desire to Google your symptoms.
Cyberchondria is the obsessive online research about illnesses and their symptoms people complete when trying to self-diagnose a condition.
Handling Your Health Anxiety
Hypochondria can seriously impact a person’s life, making it hard to complete simple tasks at times. It can also be hard on surrounding loved ones and can even affect work performance and other facets of day-to-day life. If excessive fear and worry about your health are limiting you, it’s time to take control.
First, you may benefit from self-help techniques. Relaxation practices – like guided meditations and yoga – can help lower stress levels. It’s also important that you resist the urge to Google your symptoms in an attempt to self-diagnose.
“The easy availability of health information on the internet is a double-edged sword,” says Dr. Ahmed Ibrahim, a psychiatrist with Parkridge Valley Hospital. “It does help people become more educated about their health and medical treatment, but it can also be harmful for people who are inclined to worry.”
If you can, focus on activities you enjoy, or find a place to volunteer. Reduce your alcohol intake and avoid recreational drugs too, as both can increase levels of anxiety. When it comes to entertainment, skip the realistic doctor dramas, since they can plant ideas of potential diagnoses.
Work to recognize that physical sensations are normal – not signs of something serious. “The dilemma behind hypochondriasis is that patients misinterpret their bodily sensations and become convinced that they are signs of serious medical conditions,” explains Dr. Ibrahim. “A headache will be interpreted as a brain tumor; a cough will be lung cancer. A vicious cycle then starts, in which stress makes the symptoms worse, which leads to more stress.”
Setting a specific schedule for doctor appointments can help. At these preset appointments, you can discuss any concerns and work to set a limit on additional appointments and medical tests that aren’t warranted.
“The primary goal is to help the patient cope with their health fears,” says Dr. Ibrahim. “Listening to the patient’s complaints, acknowledging their concerns, performing a physical examination, avoiding extensive medical tests, and providing reassurance are all necessary steps.”
Of course, sometimes the cycle can be hard to break alone, and professional treatment is necessary. Your primary care doctor may refer you to a mental health specialist for evaluation. He or she can recommend different options depending on your case. “Since this is a belief that has developed over time, it typically takes a while to work through the issue,” says Dr. Beckner. “There is rarely need for inpatient treatment, but there is often a need for extensive outpatient treatment.”
Psychotherapy is one technique known to help. With cognitive behavioral therapy, a short-term, goal-oriented form of psychotherapy, individuals learn to recognize and understand what incorrect beliefs are triggering their anxiety, since emotional distress can lead to physical symptoms. Once triggers are identified, coping skills can be recommended to help manage them.
In some instances, medications such as antidepressants can prove beneficial.
Is It All for Attention?
There is a common misconception that hypochondriacs are “faking it” for attention, but that’s not the case. Dr. Jarl explains, “As physicians, we are trained to sort out hypochondriasis, an actual psychological disorder, from malingering, which is where a patient feigns symptoms for some form of secondary gain, like a day off from work or disability benefits.”
Helping a Loved One with Hypochondria
For a lot of folks struggling with hypochondria, it’s extremely difficult to understand and acknowledge that anxiety is a major factor in their symptoms. For that reason, intervention from loved ones is often an important push they need to seek assistance. Dr. Beckner recommends addressing it in such a way: “If there is something wrong, doctors have yet to find it. However, it is obvious that this is causing you a lot of anxiety. Therefore, let us start to address this anxiety with either a psychiatrist or counselor.”
It’s easy to get frustrated or even judgmental when it comes to a loved one with health anxiety. But it’s important to realize that, while they may not be struggling with a physical illness, they’re still struggling. Listen to their concerns without feeding their anxiety and be patient.
Ultimately, whether it’s you or a loved one facing serious health anxiety, remain hopeful. It is treatable through lifestyle changes, therapy, and medication. Facing hypochondria head on will open you up to a happier, healthier, and more fulfilled life. HS