Hypochondria or hypochondriasis is a mental condition in which the patient is excessively preoccupied with recurrent thoughts of having a serious medical condition. This is mostly a mental condition, which arises due to a perception about having an illness which may not really exist. Patients suffering from hypochondria tend to become excessively alarmed about symptoms which supposedly indicate an illness, regardless of how minor and irrelevant they might be.
Hypochondriasis is a documented “somatoform” disorder. More often than not, hypochondriacs are certain that they might be diagnosed with serious illness in the future and they frequently visit doctors. In most cases, hypochondriacs seek alternate medical advice when one doctor assures them that nothing is wrong. Such preoccupation may last for as long as 6 months in most cases. Many hypochondriacs also have “white-coat” syndrome, which refers to excessive anxiety and high blood pressure upon seeing a doctor in a clinical setting. Most hypochondriacs also engage in self-diagnosis, which may lead to substance abuse as a means of self-medication. Some other forms of Somatoform disorders are Somatization, Conversion Disorder and Pain Disorder.
Signs and Symptoms of Hypochondriasis
- Individuals develop a tendency to look for doctors who agree that the patients have a serious illness. They have a history of hopping from one doctor to another
- The individual may excessively be concerned with a particular organ of the body- the heart or the digestive system and the organ that the patient is fixated upon may change from time to time
- The individuals have a fixation with learning about serious illnesses and often think about being affected by one of these.
- In a majority of the cases, a doctor’s reassurance may not soothe the patient and he/she may also reject the doctors’ diagnosis
- The individual’s concern with a particular illness/group of illnesses may interfere with his or her normal life
Causes and Risk Factors
Hypochondria is essentially a psychosomatic disorder or a mental illness that has physical symptoms. Multiple events can cause this condition including the body’s response to stress and anxiety.
People with a history of sexual abuse or those who suffered from a serious illness during childhood may have an incessant fear of being ill. People who have had problems with expressing emotions as children are at higher risk for hypochondria.
This is a “learned” behavior in many cases. Patients who are close to hypochondriacs may like the attention they get from feigning illness and may learn to feign illness to the extent that even they start believing in their condition.
Hypochondriacs are exposed to certain risks including:
- Unnecessary expenditure on medical bills
- Inflated medical charges
- Constant distress and preoccupation
- Depression and excessive dependence on caregivers
Hypochondria is essentially a condition of anxiety. It has been observed that hypochondria can be reversed by a combination of medicinal and psychological treatments. Patients can enroll themselves into a professional treatment center that would enable them to get the right mix of both types of treatment. Targeted psychotherapy can also be used to treat patients on a case to case basis. Group therapy can also help in helping patients learn about their condition through others’ experiences.
SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) like paroxetine have been found to be particularly helpful in reducing the stress and anxiety experienced by hypochondriacs.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also a great way to de-stress the patients suffering from the obsession of being ill or “taken down” by a particular medical condition. CBT teaches the patients to see their behavior as “unnecessary” and exaggerated and helps them to curb their urges when they are exposed to things which would trigger their health-related anxiety.