Is excessive worrying about your health causing you psychological distress? This despite the fact that you've been told by your doctor that you show no signs of illness and are perfectly fine? If so, you could be suffering from a mental health disorder known as hypochondria or health anxiety. Learn what causes this mental disorder, its symptoms, and how a person with hypochondria can be treated.
What is Hypochondria?
Taking its name from the Greek words "hypo", which means under, and "chondros" which means cartilage, hypochondria is the preoccupation with the feeling that you are sick even if you have no symptoms. Some hypochondriacs believe they may be suffering from a serious illness based on some physical symptoms, no matter how small or nonexistent, while others become anxious about developing signs of illnesses they've read about online.
It can be difficult for a person with hypochondria to accept their own negative evaluations of their physical condition when doctors tell them they are fine. Their fears are often based on bodily sensations or specific health conditions such as cancer, AIDS, heart disease, or germs and the effects of radiation and death.
What are the Symptoms of Hypochondria?
Hypochondriacs may experience many physical complaints in several organ systems, without definite evidence of disease. In addition to fatigue, headaches, digestive problems and pain throughout the body, there are also non-specific complaints that do not require a physical exam. The primary symptoms of hypochondria are as follows:
- Extreme anxiety with frequent checking of body for signs of disease
- A constant need to consult health professionals or undergo medical tests
- Obsessing about real or imagined somatic symptoms
- Going over the possible causes of these symptoms
- Ignoring advice from doctors that they're physically healthy
- Avoiding psychological treatment
- Irregular sleep patterns due to constant worrying
Besides visiting numerous doctors, hypochondriacs are addicted to reading self-help books or constantly searching the internet for information on various diseases. Many hypochondriacs with extreme health anxiety are unable to function in daily life. If they are not treated properly, they could develop psychosis.
Causes of Hypochondria
The exact cause of health anxiety disorder is unknown, but many people with this condition have obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, or other anxiety disorders. In addition to mental illness, other risk factors for hypochondria include:
- Genetic factors (you're more likely to develop it if you have a parent or sibling with hypochondria as well)
- A serious childhood illness
- A history of being neglected as a child
- Being a constant worrier
Treatment Options for Hypochondria
People with hypochondria should seek out a medical professional for an accurate diagnosis in order to be able to receive effective treatment. There is no cure for hypochondria, but there are treatments that can drastically improve an individual's quality of life, such as the following:
This form of talk therapy can help hypochondriacs realise that they are not actually sick. Cognitive behavioural therapy, in particular, can equip them with the skills to manage their psychosomatic symptoms and excessive worries, training their mind to stop focussing on their symptoms and instead learn more productive ways of thinking. It includes psychoeducation, which explains how hypochondria works in the brain and challenges negative automatic thoughts with rational ones.
Exposure therapy and journaling are common CBT techniques that are used to organise the thoughts and behaviours of an individual with hypochondria in order to reduce the occurrence of hypochondriac symptoms.
Using hypnosis, hypochondriacs learn to identify their condition and uncover the underlying cause of their fears and beliefs. As a result, their level of anxiety is reduced as they develop a new perspective on their health.
While conventional antidepressants may be effective at treating the symptoms of depression or anxiety, they are not recommended as a standalone treatment due to their many side effects. Instead, they are often prescribed in combination with psychological treatment.
Hypochondria Support Groups
Hypochondria support groups are helpful because they help people with hypochondria understand that their symptoms are not real or serious. Members of hypochondria support groups are encouraged by others' experiences and can also share their own experiences about their own symptoms.
Tips to Avoid Hypochondria
Prevention for hypochondria is a difficult task, as no one can predict what factors may trigger hypochondriac tendencies. However, learning relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga can help lower stress, which is one of the most common causes of worsening symptoms.
Keeping an open line of communication with friends and family members is also vital, as social support has been shown to improve mental health outcomes in people suffering from hypochondria.
Other ways to avoid or reduce the risk of developing hypochondria or worsening symptoms include:
- Getting enough sleep each night
- Avoiding alcohol, caffeine and stimulating pills
- Learning healthy ways to cope with stress like through exercise or meditation
- Avoiding overreliance on information from the internet
Hypochondria can be prevented in a variety of ways depending on the person. However, the best way to prevent hypochondriac symptoms is to seek medical attention if you are experiencing unexplainable symptoms rather than self-medicate.