Hypochondriasis is a disorder characterized by an obsessive concern with disease and bodily mishap. Individuals suffering from hypochondria are referred to as “hypochondriacs.” Hypochondriacs believe that real or imagined physical symptoms are signs of a serious illness, despite medical reassurance and other evidence to the contrary. This particular mental illness affects approximately 1-5% of the total US population.
Hypochondriacs suffer from chronic and abnormal anxiety about delusional ailments. As a result they spend a disproportionately large amount of time in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and seeing “specialists.” In cases of severe hypochondriasis, patients spend large amounts of money on medicines, vitamins, and supplements in a perpetual effort to mitigate imagined symptoms. When an individual qualifies as having the mind disorder of hypochondriasis, he or she is often able to acknowledge that the disorder’s accompanying fears are unreasonable. However, understanding this on an intellectual level does little to reduce anxiety. Some do not understand that their thought patterns are irrational. Others recognize that they fit the mold of the typical hypochondriac, yet continue to experience anxiety despite their accurate self-reflection.
In some cases, hypochondriasis sufferers have experienced a multitude of serious illnesses as a child. Thus, the memory of such unpleasant experiences, tipped off by bodily discomfort, resonates with them in a permanent and damaging way. Amplification of sensory stimuli accounts for one reason behind the diagnosis of hypochondriasis. Hypochondriacs report unusually high amounts of sensitivity to bodily elements.
The causes for hypochondriasis vary but the majority of patients display similarities in their sensitivity to sensory experiences and distorted interpretation of symptoms. In terms of the latter, hypochondriacs practice dysfunctional thinking on a regular basis. Aligned with symptoms of OCD, hypochondriacs are prone to making catastrophic misinterpretations of their physical symptoms. Hypochondriacs dramatically overestimate small and insignificant changes in their bodies and health. They believe small aches and pangs imply that death is around the corner or a terminal illness is surely underlying the discomfort.
Psychiatrists who diagnose patients with hypochondriasis recognize that the patient’s symptoms are excessive, problematic, and interfere with the patient’s ability to function in society. Although full-blown and severe hypochondriasis cases are rare, lesser degrees of hypochondriasis affect a greater number of individuals. Individuals prone to anxieties such as phobias and social phobias exhibit glimpses of hypochondriasis throughout their lives, but do not sustain enough symptoms to be diagnosed with the illness in accordance with DSM-IV requirements.
Sensitive Elements Include:
- While most people go about their day-to-day life without harping on every small sensation their body incurs, the hypochondriac’s mindset is focused on every itch, ache, and pain in a very dramatic way
- Treatment of hypochondriasis is available. Although options for patients do exist, the illness is difficult to treat. Clinicians must be warm and empathetic in their approach to the treatment process. Patients with this curious ailment are highly sensitive in nature and must be addressed with care and discretion. Usually, treatment has a higher chance of success when the victim’s physician signs off on psychological treatment as a viable option. With the doctor’s written note that medical ailments are off the table, hypochondriacs will be more inclined to sustain an open mind in psychotherapy
- Psychological treatments for hypochondriacs involves bringing up issues with the patient in a non-threatening manner
- Psychologists can draw parallels between issues or events in the patient’s life and subsequent physical symptoms
Treatments for Hypochondriasis Include:
- Maintain a set schedule of routine screening tests agreed upon by physician, psychologist and patient, discouraging the client from seeking treatment in between routine tests
- Education on normal bodily sensations can help the patient differentiate between “normal” feelings and red flag feelings indicating a more serious illness is at bay
Psychologists and physicians can work synergistically to ensure the client’s hypochondriasis symptoms are reduced. They may implement exposure and response prevention, intended to reduce obsessive and compulsive tendencies to check their body for “symptoms”. Behavioral stress management has also been shown to be effective. Since stress exacerbates hypochondriasis, learning to deal with life’s stressors helps mitigate symptoms of the illness over time. With practice and a healthy dose of support, victims of hypochondriasis can learn to live life with a healthy balance of health assurance and disease prevention.