Written by - Christian Nordqvist / Medical News Today
If you have a preoccupying fear of having a serious illness you most likely suffer from hypochondria or hypochondriasis. A person with hypochondria continues thinking he is seriously ill despite appropriate medical evaluations and reassurances that his health is fine.
A person with hypochondria will think such normal bodily functions as heart beats, sweating and bowel movements are symptoms of a serious illness or condition. Even minor abnormalities, such as a runny nose, slightly swollen lymph nodes and a small sore are seen as symptoms of something really serious.
A person with hypochondria may also use vague phrases - he may say he has tired veins or a sore liver.
It is not uncommon for people with hypochondria to focus on one particular organ, such as the lungs, or just one disease, such as cancer. Even after tests come back negative, their anxiety continues to be high and their desire for more physical attention grows.
We are not sure how many people suffer from hypochondria. A sufferer usually sees his primary care physician (General Practitioner), rather a mental health care professional - hence, a diagnosis of hypochondria is often not made. It is estimated that between 0.8% and 8.5% of the US adult population suffers from hypochondria. Approximately the same number of men and women suffer from hypochondria.
A Normal Fear or Hypochondria?
Most of us worry at some time that we may have some minor physical symptom which could be a sign of a serious illness. This is not usually hypochondria. If the preoccupying fear of disease lasts for more than 6 months, the worrier is much more likely to be suffering from hypochondria.
A large proportion of hypochondria suffers also suffer from some psychiatric disorder. Over 60% of hypochondria patients also suffer from major depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder. A sufferer from some psychiatric disorder is thought to also suffer from hypochondria when his preoccupation with illness is not explained by the disorder.
How Long Does Hypochondria Last?
A person with hypochondria may suffer for months, and even years. He may have equally long periods when he does not worry about being ill. Experts say that approximately 30% of hypochondria patients eventually improve significantly. Recovery is more likely among people with a higher socio-economic status, those whose depression or anxiety responds well to treatment, and those who don't have a personality disorder or related non-psychiatric medical condition.
When Does Hypochondria Start?
Why people develop hypochondria is unclear. Experts believe many factors play a role. Hypochondria usually initially affects people during early adulthood. A person may start suffering from hypochondria after recovering from a serious illness, after a loved one or close friend becomes ill, or after a loved one or close friend dies. Somebody who has experienced increased stress may also be affected, as could such a person exposed to well-publicized disease in the media.
The majority of psychologists say that most people who develop hypochondria tend to be neurotic, self-critical, and/or narcissistic. Some perfectionists may also suffer from hypochondria - believing that being healthy means never, ever feeling any pain or discomfort.
An underlying medical condition might be a trigger for hypochondria. A patient who has a weak heart may automatically assume the worst whenever he experiences sensations related to heart disease. Some health care professionals say that people with hypochondria have a low threshold for pain. They notice internal sensations earlier than other people do.
Treatment for Hypochondria
Recent studies have demonstrated that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as fluoxetine and paroxetine) are effective in treating Hypochondria. CBT helps the worrier to address and cope with niggling physical symptoms and illness worries. Obsessive worry can be reduced if the patient is given SSRIs.
Factors Which May Contribute To Hypochondria
Cyberchondria - looking stuff up on the internet and worrying about it
Media coverage of diseases
TV shows and advertisements about serious illnesses, especially when they portray some serious diseases as random, obscure and somewhat inevitable
Inaccurate portrayal of risk broadcast in various media
Predictions of pandemic
Major disease outbreaks
Publication of statistics regarding chronic illnesses
Being told that mental illness can frequently trigger obsessions about being ill
Approaching the age of a parent's premature death
Article sources - JAMA, National Institutes of Health, Wikipedia