- Illness anxiety disorder (also known as hypochondria) is a mental health condition in which sufferers frequently become convinced or seriously concerned that they have a serious illness or medical emergency.
- The mental and emotional effects of hypochondria include an intense, irrational fear about becoming ill or injured, a need for validation of one’s symptoms from others, self-doubt, and more.
- Triggers and causes of hypochondria can include childhood trauma, a family history of anxiety disorders, and past experiences with chronic illness or serious injuries, among other unique factors.
- A therapist or psychiatrist can offer an accurate diagnosis via mental health evaluation, and treatment may involve cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, behavioral management therapy, exposure therapy, or SSRIs, including sertraline and fluoxetine.
How many of us have felt suddenly unwell for a time, and out of concern, googled our symptoms? Later on, when we’re better, we might feel a little bit embarrassed that we were so concerned—maybe our mysterious symptoms were all in our heads. Experiencing this fear of illness or disease is quite common, but for some folks, it’s a constant mental battle. Illness anxiety disorder (also known as hypochondria) is the perpetual fear of being seriously sick, hurt, or otherwise unhealthy.
Hypochondria presents itself as an obstructive and psychologically damaging condition to cope with long-term. It’s a disorder that can be extremely frustrating; the health-based anxiety it creates can convince sufferers that they are frequently in need of medical assistance. In order to dissipate the illusion that hypochondriacs can become entangled in, mental health providers look to implement unique, personally-molded treatment plans.
What Is Illness Anxiety Disorder?
Illness anxiety disorder is the clinical term for hypochondria—the false belief that one is chronically ill, injured, or otherwise in danger from a serious medical condition. Hypochondria symptoms in those who suffer from it may entail:
- Constantly researching potential illnesses, or making frequent doctor’s visits out of concern for non-existent health conditions
- Constantly asking loved ones whether what they’re feeling is normal
- Avoiding public spaces or people for fear of being hurt or exposed to illness
- Experiencing abnormally high anxiety about their personal health
- Obsessively monitoring their vital signs
- Oversharing their physical health status with other people
Hypochondriacs may also shift their concern to a new medical condition or concern, once their fears about a previous ailment have been quelled or forgotten about. Hypochondria can affect one’s financial stability, career growth, and quality of life; hypochondriacs are likely to suffer greatly when they do become seriously ill or injured. There’s currently no known cure; however, a therapist or psychiatrist’s guidance has been shown to offer remarkable improvements.
What Does Being a Hypochondriac Feel Like?
No one is a hypochondriac: It’s not an identity, but a particular challenge that some people find themselves facing. Hypochondria is a highly subjective experience—it’s not a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all disorder. Hypochondria is based on the unique experiences and obstacles that those with illness anxiety face (or have faced); their journey toward wellness will be shaped by their negative thought patterns and their ability to manage them.
That being said, it’s still possible for those who think they may have hypochondria (or who are curious about this anxiety disorder) to understand an approximation of what hypochondria feels like. Hypochondriacs often, but not always, experience:
- Debilitating fear related to their death or pain as a result of an undiagnosed health condition
- Frustration when others disregard their worries
- Significant detriments to their social, professional, or romantic lives as a result of their irrational thoughts and their effects on their behavior
- Self-doubt, as they wrestle with hypochondria, wondering if they are overthinking—or if they indeed have a serious health condition
Many online platforms and social groups have found outlets and communities through which to share personal battles and triumphs related to hypochondria. These hubs serve as enriching and informative vehicles for insight into the perspectives of those with hypochondria.
What Causes Illness Anxiety Disorder?
Hypochondria, according to current psychological understanding, isn’t caused by a single event or factor but is more likely to arise from a group of comorbid events or circumstances. Some of these events or circumstances include:
- Childhood trauma, including neglectful parents, sibling rivalries, or even custody battles
- Extreme stress
- A history of anxiety disorders in your family
- Suffering from an illness or injury in childhood illness
- Witnessing a family member suffer from a chronic illness or debilitating injury during childhood
- Pre-existing mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia
- Recent or past history of trauma, including sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse
The causes of hypochondria all function as a gateway toward an increased risk of health-related anxiety. But to be diagnosed, someone with hypochondria-related symptoms requires a professional’s mental health evaluation.
What Triggers Hypochondria?
Hypochondria can initially be triggered by adverse childhood events, as explained previously, but triggers in the present day-to-day life of a hypochondriac can include:
- High blood pressure (which can be worsened or caused by their anxiety)
- Rapid heart rate (which can also be caused by their illness anxiety)
- Concerns related to contracting COVID-19, or from being in close proximity to someone with a COVID variant
- Public spaces, such as transportation systems, airplanes, bars, and other heavily trafficked areas
- Allergies, sunburns, hangovers, and other minor ailments
- Autoimmune issues, which have been shown to be linked with long-term anxiety
Triggers are highly specific, more so to each individual, who may struggle to contain the stress and emotional overwhelm that springs forth from whatever has triggered their hypochondria.
When Does Hypochondriasis Typically Develop?
Hypochondria (sometimes referred to as hypochondriasis) typically develops in early adulthood. At this point in life, the sufferer may have experienced a chronic illness or injury; perhaps a family member, friend, or someone else became unwell. Additionally, media exposure is known to increase as we age, and becoming overloaded with information or marketing related to certain health conditions may in fact contribute to hypochondria. Still—hypochondria can develop in nearly every age group, other than very young children.
How Is Illness Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?
Though commonly referred to as hypochondria, illness anxiety disorder is the proper psychological term for habitual health-related anxiety. Being diagnosed involves a mental health evaluation from a qualified mental health professional. The first step is to reach out for help.
From there, the provider will follow the DSM-5 criteria for illness anxiety disorder, and throughout the evaluation will take care to observe the following symptoms or signs:
- The individual has an intense fear or strong belief that they will develop (or have developed) a serious mental health condition.
- Somatic symptoms (anxiety-based physical responses, like upset stomach, headaches, etc) are not present or, are only mild. Even if the person in mind runs the risk of developing a medical condition, their level of concern is clearly excessive.
- The client indicates a high level of anxiety about their personal health,
- The client exhibits excessive health-related behaviors (like checking their vitals) or has maladaptive avoidant behaviors (avoiding hospitals or doctor’s appointments).
- The client has been overly concerned about their health for at least 6 months, even if the focal point of their anxiety has shifted since then.
- The client’s illness-related preoccupation is not better explained by another mental disorder.
Illness anxiety disorder sufferers are further divided by whether they are care-seeking or care-avoidant in coping with the symptoms of their hypochondria. Care-seeking hypochondriacs prioritize medical care, while care-avoidant types go out of their way to avoid medical appointments, hospitals, and talking with physicians.
How Can I Stop My Fear of Illness?
Confronting hypochondria can be at first difficult, especially if you aren’t fully aware of the extent of your condition. The best way to stop hypochondriac thoughts is to team up with a therapist or psychiatrist who has a thorough understanding of hypochondria and other anxiety-based conditions. Therapists typically employ a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach to hypochondria, which among other key points, helps clients recognize and successfully counteract negative thought patterns.
Still, other therapeutic methods include:
- Group therapy: This treatment method may help those with hypochondria to better recognize intrusive and irrational health-related thoughts, as they connect and communicate with others who share similar symptoms. Seeing the unbalanced behaviors of other sufferers may help them self-reflect and address their own symptoms.
- Behavioral stress management: This treatment involves reinforcing helpful behaviors and learning to eliminate unhelpful behaviors. Those who are struggling to cope with the symptoms of hypochondria may more effectively learn to counteract the stress and anxiety of imagined health concerns when they arise.
- Exposure therapy: This form of treatment can be highly subjective, as each hypochondriac may face a unique set of triggers that activate their tendency to overthink. However, exposure therapy may involve scheduling and attending doctor’s appointments, coping with real illness (such as a cold or flu), or spending time in a setting that has previously caused health-based anxiety, such as a theater, public park, or medical clinic.
Psychiatrists routinely prescribe anti-depressant medication to help treat hypochondria, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as sertraline, fluoxetine (perhaps the most popular), fluvoxamine, and paroxetine. Your treatment will depend on the severity of your hypochondria symptoms, your chosen provider’s background, and your personal preferences.
How Can I Stop Being a Hypochondriac? Self-Help Tips
The first step in managing the overthinking and stress associated with this condition is to recognize the harm that hypochondriac tendencies and a hypochondriac mindset can cause. And besides the assistance of a provider, there are smaller, less technical steps that you can take to help mitigate the likelihood that you’ll trigger your hypochondria-related anxiety.
You can begin to curb hypochondriac tendencies on your own by:
- Cutting back on the amount of time you spend researching potential health conditions, especially if you’ve already seen a medical professional, who has assured you that you’re fine. Use a third-party app (with the password being held by a loved one) to block your access to sites like WebMD or others that may increase your health-related stress.
- Meditating in place, or taking a walking meditation when strong feelings of anxiety and stress begin to manifest. Studies show that acknowledging thoughts that are harmful helps us to feel empowered enough to let them pass—instead of validating them and feeding them.
- Journaling your thoughts. Being able to read your thoughts from days and months in the past may highlight patterns in your behavior and emotions that are hidden from view, at least from a day-to-day perspective. Many clients report that expressing their fear and anxiety on paper or a screen helps them to better identify irrational thoughts.
- Volunteering: Spending time helping others can instill a sense of community and companionship in those with hypochondriac tendencies. Anxiety disorders can isolate those who are coping with them, which makes volunteering a way to strengthen one’s support network while also chipping away at the walls hypochondriacs may have constructed.
These are incremental but doable steps that hypochondriacs can take to start treating their illness anxiety. As stressed previously, a professional’s assistance is the most surefire step toward ensuring a better quality of life.
Is Hypochondria a Serious Mental Illness?
Hypochondria can be a serious mental health condition, depending on how debilitating the symptoms of this condition are. Hypochondria can prevent some people from seeking medical assistance, or harm them financially—by causing them to miss work, or to schedule expensive (and unnecessary medical appointments). Financial stress can compound existing anxiety, and when the body and brain don’t get the recovery time they need to reach baseline, fatigue and the potential for developing other mental health conditions becomes more likely.
Treating hypochondria starts with honesty; honesty about how intrusive and unwanted hypochondriac thoughts can be. And whether we choose to call it hypochondria or illness anxiety disorder, it’s a mental health condition that’s best treated by a qualified and compassionate mental health professional.