Hypochondriasis: When Worrying About Your Health Goes Too Far

“All the powers of imagination combine in hypochondria.” ~ Mason Cooley

If you were to google the symptoms from hunger pains and a low-grade fever, the internet might tell you you have appendicitis or another life-threatening illness. It is likely that you have had something similar happen–thinking a minor sickness is actually something far more concerning. While this may be laughable for many people, some individuals genuinely and subconsciously worry they have contracted (or may contract) a very serious illness from day-to-day life. This type of excessive worry is uncontrollable for some, and is a type of mental illness called hypochondriasis.

While hypochondriasis is the proper name for this illness, you have likely heard of it referred to as health anxiety, illness anxiety disorder, hypochondria, or that someone struggling with this mental illness is a “hypochondriac.” It is defined as the excessive worry of being or becoming seriously ill–even with the absence of worrisome physical symptoms. You may believe that normal body sensations or minor symptoms are signs of severe illness, even if or when a thorough medical exam does not reveal a serious medical condition.

This mental illness, like several others, is difficult in the fact that it is relentless–it never stops. No matter where you go, you worry about germs and contracting deadly sicknesses; it is as if the rest of your life is merely background music to the constant worrying that is hypochondriasis. This severe distress can majorly interrupt your life.

Symptoms of illness anxiety disorder involve preoccupation with the idea that you are seriously ill, based on normal body sensations (like the sounds of a hungry stomach) or minor signs (like a minor rash). Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Being preoccupied with having or getting a serious disease or health condition
  • Worrying that minor symptoms or body sensations are indicative of a serious illness
  • Being easily alarmed about your health status
  • Finding little or no reassurance from doctor visits or negative test results
  • Worrying about a specific medical condition because it runs in your family
  • Having so much distress about possible illnesses that it is hard for you to function
  • Repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness or disease
  • Frequently making medical appointments for reassurance (or even avoiding medical care for fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness)
  • Avoiding people, places or activities for fear of health risks
  • Constantly talking about your health and possible illnesses
  • Frequently searching the internet for causes of symptoms or possible illnesses

The causes for hypochondria are unclear, but there are three common hypothesis. First, you may have a difficult time accepting the uncertainty of an uncomfortable or unusual symptom in your body, which may lead you to search for evidence that would provide a more concrete answer–often resulting in an unnecessarily serious diagnosis. The second option is that you have had a parent or other family member excessively worry about their own or your health. The third possibility is that you have had a past experience with a serious illness that has created an overwhelming fear or paranoia surrounding unusual physical sensations.

The best prevention and treatments for hypochondria are simple. First, see your doctor for your routine check-ups to ensure optimal health. He/she can help reassure you that you are healthy, and this professional diagnosis may be useful to fall back on if you start worrying about your overall health. Second, if you have problems with anxiety, seek professional guidance from a mental health counselor as quickly as possible to help stop symptoms from worsening and impairing your quality of life. Third, learn to recognize when you are feeling stressed, how stress affects your body, and how to manage your stress (think meditation, exercise, a healthy diet, self-care, etc). And lastly, stick with your treatment plan to help prevent relapses or worsening of symptoms.

Just as you would go to a medical doctor with a broken limb or an unresolved alarming health concern, you should see a qualified, trained and experienced therapist to treat your mental needs. Hypochondria is a very real and debilitating mental illness. There is a way to work through your excessive worries and fears of sickness. I am here to help. Please contact me today with questions or to schedule a session.
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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