Hypochondria (Illness Anxiety Disorder)

Hypochondria (Illness Anxiety Disorder)

Hypochondria (Illness Anxiety Disorder)

Medically reviewed by: Ilbey Ucar – PhD
(Psychologist)

Last updated date : March 29, 2022

Chapter 1:
What is Hypochondria?

Hypochondria is also known as  illness anxiety disorder. In fact illness anxiety disorder, is the new term for hypochondria.

It is a mental health issue where a person has excessively worries about becoming seriously ill. Or they have persistent fear of having a serious medical illness.  An individual with hypochondria will mistake normal bodily signs for illnesses. They then worry about it for weeks or even months.

For example, an individual may take sweating, a birthmark, or the sound of gut digestion as signs of a serious illness. They may worry that their sweating is due to a serious thyoid illness, the birthmark is a skin cancer or that stomach noises are due to pancreatitis! Understandably, these extreme and intense worries lead to distress, suffering and a poorer quality of life. 

People with hypochondria tend not to trust medical diagnoses or health experts. They may also avoid medical attention due to fear of finding out they are ill. Illness anxiety disorder is a relatively common condition that typically begins in early adulthood.

Excessively thinking young man clasping his hands and looking worried
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Chapter 2:
What is the Differential Diagnosis of Hypochondria?

Some of the frequent differential diagnosis of Illness Anxiety Disorder include:

  • Obsessive – Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Delusional Disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Personality Disorders
  • Schizophrenia
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Chapter 3:
Significant Characteristics/ Symptoms of Hypochondria

  • Persisting worry or extreme fear and anxiety of attracting a serious illness.
  • Extreme anxiety over personal health.
  • Tends to avoid places, people, and anything that may put the individual’s health at risk.
  • Being obsessed over researching and digging up symptoms or illnesses that the individual suspects themselves suffering from.
  • Frequent doctors’ appointments due to never being satisfied with the diagnosis.
  • Frequent misinterpretation of normal bodily symptoms to be signs of a serious illness.
  • Consistently making conversations about health, illnesses, and their worries regarding themselves.
  • Subjected to being easily alarmed by any minor situation regarding their health.

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Chapter 4:
What may Cause Hypochondria?

A worried young man in a red sweater swallowing a load of colourful pills and tablets

The exact reasons that may result in the disorder are unclear, but they may occur for a few reasons.

  • Family Background – Individuals who grow up around adults who were extremely conscious about their and the children’s health and took serious measures at any minor inconvenience may become extremely conscious, anxious about their health.
  •  Anxiety disorders within the family may lead to this as well.
  • Experiences – those who may have suffered a loss or an uncomfortable situation due to a misdiagnosis or a late diagnosis may have a difficult time being reassured, even by a medical professional. Those who may have had serious illnesses can also tend to be frightened by different physical sensations. Another cause could be neglect or abuse one may have suffered during childhood.
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Chapter 5:
Hypochondria vs. Somatic Symptom Disorder

These are two very similar conditions but are not the same. While individuals with Illness Anxiety Disorder tend to worry about being ill or getting gravely ill, their worries remain mostly psychological. Their fear is unrealistic, about normal bodily symptoms being wrongly understood as an illness or signs of an illness.

When it comes to Somatic Symptom Disorder, physical signs show an individual having medical issues, which still cannot be diagnosed. These symptoms and tests that were done on them often cannot pinpoint a reason. Those with  Somatic Symptom Disorder tend to worry about their health just as much as an individual with  Illness Anxiety Disorder would.

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Chapter 6:
Risk Factors of Hypochondria

Stressed young lady with a worried look picturing herself fallen on the ground in front of strangers

Illness Anxiety Disorder typically takes place during early adulthood. If one’s personality is like that of being a worrier about things and/or,

  • Going through a period of major life stress that may threaten their health,
  • Has had a traumatic childhood,
  • Had a grave illness as a child or had an adult around them that suffered from a serious illness,
  • Has a family history of those diagnosed with Illness Anxiety Disorder,
  • Been diagnosed with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or personality disorder,
  • If one has been exposed to parental abuse or drug use,

They are more prone to being at risk of being diagnosed with Illness Anxiety Disorder. If one has the top symptom of living in fear of becoming gravely ill, persistently for over 6 months, they may be diagnosed with  Illness Anxiety Disorder.

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Chapter 7:
Complications of Hypochondria

The constant fear of getting ill and living with anxiety may make one’s life chaotic. It may harm one’s mental wellbeing as well as relationships. You may miss out on simple joys of life and may even become suicidal due to extreme depression.

Illness Anxiety Disorder may put you at risk of financial struggle. Frequent doctors’ appointments, tests, and meeting specialists for reassurance will become added costs. Even these diagnoses and reassurance hardly convince one diagnosed with Illness Anxiety Disorder, making money spent in vain.

Your behaviour may frustrate your loved ones.  Your excessive worrying and living in distress will bring displeasure to others.

You will not be able to keep up with your work-related environment due to being frequently absent and may become unemployed.

There’s a possibility of developing other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, or somatic symptoms.

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Chapter 8:
How do I Care for Myself with Hypochondria?

It is perfectly alright to be worried about one’s health from time to time. Therefore, it is important to make sure that you’re suffering from Illness Anxiety Disorder.  People with Illness Anxiety may misinterpret normal bodily signs for a grave illness. That situation is different from yours if you’re worried due to obvious medical signs that suggest an illness.

Here are some of the signs that you may have, which are symptoms of Hypochondria.

  • Always worried about your health.
  • You worry about attracting severe illnesses such as cancer, AIDS, etc.
  • Doctors’ reassurance, medical reports that come clean do not satisfy you.
  • You will be frequently checking your body for any signs of illness
  • Needing constant reassurance from doctors or loved ones.
  • Being obsessed with researching information about illnesses.
  • Reading a news story or watching a TV show about an illness may lead you to believe that you have it. For example, reading about HIV may lead you to believe that you’re ill with it, even if you’ve only ever had one sexual partner.
  • Either obsessed with going for frequent checkups, or the opposite of avoiding treatment due to the fear of being misdiagnosed.
  • Always act as if you are ill, even when cleared by medical professionals as otherwise.
  • Severe anxiety, causing frequent headaches.

Do you have these symptoms? If you do, chances are that you may have Illness Anxiety Disorder.

These are some of the questions you can ask your doctor to make matters clear for you.

  1. Do I have Hypochondria?
  2. If you think I do, how severe is my case?
  3. Can therapy help in my case?
  4. What other treatment approach would you recommend?
  5. What are the side effects I may have to face due to medication?
  6. What can I do to take better care of myself?
  7. Should I be educated on my illness? How should I do so?

In the unfortunate scenario that you may be diagnosed with Illness Anxiety Disorder, here is what you can do to make things easier for you.

  • Challenge your disturbing thoughts

Get a book and divide a page into two columns. Use one to write your disturbing thoughts and the other one to rationalize them.

For example, if you are worried about throat pain, ‘My throat hurts’ is rationalized by ‘Throat can hurt because I have consumed cold bard in the last few days’.

  • Keep yourself busy

Don’t you feel like you are missing out on things, mainly because you have been preoccupied with your health? Take the time to engage in other activities. Spend time with a pet, enjoy nature, start gardening, or simply connect with your family and start a conversation. Drift your mind away from the worries that leave you anxious.

  • Try to get back into normal activities

Go to the park that you have been avoiding. Meet that friend you feel your health is threatened by. Slowly push yourself towards these boundaries.

  • Relax

The biggest and the most significant issue with Hypochondria is the anxiety it causes individuals to a point it cripples their daily lives in every way. When you feel extremely anxious or depressed, try a few relaxing exercises such as focused breathing, counting exercises or praying if necessary.

  • Psychotherapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment for hypochondria since this is a condition aligned with emotional distress and health anxiety. Tracking CBT can help you identify your false beliefs and fears of getting sick. This follow-up process can help you become more aware of how it affects you and everyone around you. As a result, it can help you change the way you react to stressful situations, improve your productivity, and work at home and at work. The other purpose of this process is to treat you for other mental illnesses you may have developed, such as depression.

  • Medication

The medication that will be prescribed to you to keep your anxiety and mental health in check should be followed up with inline to given instructions.

Illness Anxiety Disorder can be controlled to a significant level if one manages to keep up with these practices, despite the times they feel like it is too much to handle.

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Chapter 9:
How Should You Care for Someone with Hypochondria?

Watching a loved one suffer from anxiety and depression can be extremely frustrating. Especially if your reassurance cannot help. There are still several things you can do to help them.

  • Encourage them to participate in treatment

The situation might be new to you, but this is not for the medical industry. There are treatments for Illness Anxiety that can have a significant impact on a person’s mental and physical health. Being judgmental and not validating someone with Illness Anxiety is not wise. The diagnosis is not a hoax with its very real, very significant impacts.

The first step is to take them to visit a doctor. They may be able to check if he or she is legitimately ill. Their health concerns may be completely different from any legitimate illness they may have. The doctor can consider several factors and will eventually decide whether the patient should be diagnosed with Illness Anxiety Disorder.

Illness Anxiety Disorder is a mental health problem. It is, therefore, evaluated, diagnosed, and medication prescribed by Psychiatrists. With the help of Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Mental Health Counselors, and talk therapy,  anxious people will be able to let their frustration out and improve the quality of their lives. The medical professionals will give the family guidance as to how best they can be of help to individuals suffering due to anxiety and depression.

  • Educate yourself about Illness Anxiety

To find the best solution for the problem, it is always helpful to understand the problem fully. Reading and educating yourself about the nature of your loved one’s mentality may help you adjust yourself. You can become their peace in difficult times. It may help to know the severity of your loved one’s diagnosis to know the articles you should be referring to.

By understanding the diagnosis further, you will understand them when they get sudden anxiety attacks, depression and are extremely worried. You will be educated on how to react, physically and emotionally. You will educate them on their impulses and thoughts and raise awareness within them about their condition. It may help them gain an understanding of what is happening to them. Your behaviour during this situation will help them know that they are not alone.

Some diagnosed with Illness Anxiety Disorder refuse to see medical professionals since they do not trust them to diagnose them correctly or understand their situation fully. Having someone who understands their situation and whom they can reach out to whenever necessary will help the individual get through hard times with ease. Make sure they can tell you if you are going overboard with help. Illness Anxiety is an extremely sensitive topic where one can feel overwhelmed with reassurances. Suggest them to research anxiety management than on other health issues they are worried about. Create that safe space an anxious individual would appreciate.

  • Talk to them about their situation

Conversation can also be tricky. You can empathize with them about their anxiety situation, but you have to be careful not to get hooked up on their health, repetitive checking, overly repetitive reassurances. It is important to make them understand the real issue is anxiety and not health.

Share observations. Let them know if you think they are getting better, and let them know if you think it is getting worse. Be kind and careful with your projection. Credit them for working hard on their progress and letting them know how the difference in their anxiety impacts everyone else around them.

Make sure your conversations do not get too long, excessive, obsessive, intrusive, demanding, or compulsive. It is important to understand when they need support and when they should be left with their thoughts. Dealing with severe anxiety is a delicate situation and should be managed extremely carefully.

  • Become guidance towards their coping mechanism

Question and challenge their negativity. Remind them what the real problem is, and that is not their health. Help them recognize stress symptoms. Help them turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Prayers can help if the individual is religious.  Practice anxiety handling with different activities. Acknowledge their growth, no matter how small it is, and reward that behaviour. Help them channel the rage and anxiety into exercises and other productive tasks. For example, a playlist to soothe them during a hard time may help. Breathing techniques, counting techniques, and other calming methods should be promoted. Help them pick up a habit such as gardening or time spent in spiritual environments.

  • Patience

Sometimes despite your genuine efforts, they may be back to their anxious helpless self in no time as if the whole process pressed rewind. Remember to always be patient and understand what the illness is like. There may be days you will have to start all over again, but the eventual result will be in the fact that you kept pushing them despite their relapses. Some may find it difficult to deal with anxiety despite the guidance and help offered.

There is no cure for illness anxiety. There’s only gradual development in anxiety control. Acknowledging that they consist of a broken alarm that may go on and off without a reason might prepare you to face what is coming. Be empathetic about Illness Anxiety. Not judgmental or frustrated. Your patience may hold the key to someone’s peace.

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Chapter 10:
Diagnosis of Hypochondria

An individual referred to a behavioural health specialist may diagnose them with Illness Anxiety Disorder if the consistent fear of having a serious illness of developing one persists for over 6 months or longer after tests confirm the individual to be healthy.

Your mental health professional may also do the following tests.

  • He/ She will conduct a psychological examination of your family background, symptoms, stressful situations, concerns and how the anxiety is affecting your life.
  • Might have you fill out a questionnaire.
  • May question your history of alcohol/drug use.
  • They may also determine if your condition is more like another symptom disorder such as anxiety or somatic symptom disorder.

Chapter 11:
Treatment

There is no definite treatment for Illness Anxiety Disorder, but as for any other mental health problem, those diagnosed can be cared for by psychologists, psychiatrists aiming towards improving quality of life by minimizing symptoms.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is also an effective way of minimizing the severity of anxiety and mental pressure.

As an individual diagnosed with Hypochondria, work closely with your primary health care provider or mental health professional, visiting them and discussing your concerns.  During your free time, practice stress management activities, become physically active within the family and in the outside world. Distract yourself from checking yourself for illnesses and researching them on the internet. Most of the tricks used to contain the disorder are psychological, and most may come from the one diagnosed. As hard as it is for anyone to watch you suffer, the mental and physical strain you’re in is immense, and you should have the biggest motivation to be rid of it.

Antidepressants will be prescribed as well as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to talk through anxiety and depression issues and find effective coping mechanisms. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will help the patient understand how their thoughts affect their emotions and behaviours.

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Chapter 12:
Can Hypochondria be Prevented?

There is no known prevention guidelines for Illness Anxiety Disorder. Often people who develop hypochondria, have pre-existing anxiety. Being better able to manage the anxiety can help. In addition, developing a strong and trusting relationship with your family doctor can reduce some of your illness worries. 

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