Hypochondria is often characterized by irrational fears of being diseased or dying, obsessions over minor bodily symptoms or imperfections, doubt and
disbelief in doctors' diagnosis, constant self-examination and self-diagnosis and preoccupation with one's body.
Hypochondria (or hypochondriasis), sometimes referred to as health anxiety or health phobia),
is a disorder in which one has the unfounded belief that one is suffering from a serious illness. The primary
feature of hypochondriasis is excessive fear of having a serious disease. These fears are not relieved when a medical examination finds no evidence of disease.
With a true hypochondriac, the fear and preoccupation with the body and disease causes a great deal of distress and interferes with activities, such as work, school, family and social responsibilities. If you suffer from hypochondria you may know that your fears are unrealistic, but this realization is not enough to reduce your concern and anxiety. You may see normal
sensations such as heart burn, sweating, and bowel movements or minor problems such as a cough, abdominal pain or a common rash as symptoms of serious medical conditions.
People with hypochondria are obsessed with bodily functions and interpret normal sensations (such as heart beats, sweating, and bowel movements) or minor abnormalities (such as a runny
nose, a small sore, or slightly swollen lymph nodes) as symptoms of serious medical conditions. The fears of a person with hypochondria may be focused on the possibility of a single illness, but more often
they include a number of possible conditions. The focus of the fears may shift over time as a person notices a new symptom or learns about an unfamiliar disease.
People with hypochondria may also interpret normal sensations as signs of disease. For instance, an occasional change in heart rate or a feeling of dizziness upon standing up will lead a person with hypochondriasis to fears of heart
disease or stroke.
One form of this disorder involves a preoccupation with a single organ (such as the lungs) or disease (for example, cancer). Negative results of diagnostic examinations do little to decrease a patient's anxiety about his or her health, and he or she continues
to seek medical attention. Hypochondriacs often require constant reassurance, sometimes from multiple doctors, family and friends.
Hypochondria is often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety, and can also be brought
on by stress. It is not to be confused with disorders in which an individual intentionally fakes, exaggerates, or induces mental or physical illnesses, in order to assume the role
of a "patient", nor should it be confused with any other form of malingering.
Hypochondria can cause one or more of the following effects:
Anxiety attacks or panic attacks
Fear of impending doom
Loss of appetite
Decreased libido (sexual energy)
Decreased motivation in life.
Numbness in certain parts of the body (forehead, hands, etc)
Symptoms of Hypochondria
Preoccupation with fear of illness
Persistent fear of having a serious illness despite medical reassurance
Misinterpretation of symptoms
Symptoms that may shift and change
Symptoms that may be vague or specific
No apparent physical disorder can account for the symptoms
In order to qualify for a diagnosis of hypochondriasis, preoccupation with fear of disease must cause a great deal of distress or interfere with a person's ability to perform important activities, such as work, school activities, or family and social
responsibilities. Hypochondria is included in the category of somatoform disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), which
is the reference handbook that clinicians use to guide the diagnosis of mental disorders.
Hypochondriasis can appear at any age, although it frequently begins in early adulthood. Men and women appear to suffer equally from the disorder. It is difficult to determine how many people actually suffer from this disorder. Estimates
range from 0.8% to 8.5% of the general U.S. population.
Causes of Hypochondria
No one knows exactly why someone develops hypochondria. There seem to be many factors that might play a role. Hypochondria symptoms may develop following
a serious illness in the patient or a loved one, or after the death of a close friend or relative. Periods of increased stress may have an influence, and a well-publicized disease in the media could affect
one's interpretation of physical signs and symptoms. While any one of these events could be a "trigger"
for hypochondria, certain pre-existing personality traits and basic assumptions about health and illness can make one more vulnerable. Beliefs about health care habits can also lead to mistaken interpretations,
such as thinking that if one doesn't see a doctor as soon as any symptoms occur, it will be too late to treat an illness. One theory about people with hypochondria is that they have a lower threshold for
pain tolerance and therefore notice internal sensations that other people may not even feel.
Treatment of Hypochondria
Given the emphasis that we put on what society calls health, youth, body and the taking of a pill to solve any problem, hypochondriasis is difficult to prevent. However, cognitive behavioral therapy(CBT), hypnotherapy,
reality therapy and behavioral therapy
have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing the symptoms of the disorder. Medication (antidepressants) has also proved to be effective in alleviating severe hypochondria.
Another treatment approach is "exposure and response prevention" where the patient makes a list of their hypochondriacal behaviors, such as checking body sensations and seeking
reassurance from physicians or friends. Behavioral assignments are then developed. Patients who frequently monitor their physical sensations or seek reassurance are asked not to do so, and to allow themselves
to experience the anxiety that accompanies suppression of these behaviors. Patients practice exposing themselves to anxiety until it becomes manageable, gradually reducing hypochondriacal behaviors in the
process. Although cognitive therapy focuses more on thoughts and exposure therapy more on behaviors, both appear to be effective in reducing both dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors.
For more information about
hypochondria and other mental health problems, please click on the linked websites listed below.
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