Hypochondria is generally understood as a disease that causes people to be afraid of getting sick and has a close relationship to anxiety. Hypochondria is an illness anxiety disorder that does not consist of concerns about symptoms – either absent or minor – but rather in the fear of having or contracting an illness.
Hypochondria is not a trivial disorder: When intense or hypochondriacal fears develop, seeking the help of a specialist is helpful.
How to identify hypochondria
Hypochondriacal people are prone to overinterpreting normal physical sensations to the point of developing an intense fear of them. The first signal from the body, perceived as out of the ordinary, triggers a feeling of danger or alarm in them and the fear that one may have or may be developing a severe illness.
The roots of hypochondria remain unknown. However, it is known that:
- It is necessary to possess a biological predisposition to develop it;
- It frequently develops in young people;
- There is no distinction between males and females.
Family environment also plays a role, especially in cases with a disproportionate focus on health and illness in general. This can lead to overprotective attitudes and behaviors and the development of full-blown anxiety or panic disorders.
Over time, a hypochondriac develops hyper-attention to their health, continually assessing their body in search of possible warning signs to justify their illness concerns. Over time, this attitude can heavily influence every aspect of life and continue into adulthood.
In addition to an intense fear of illness, hypochondria can be identified in people who tend to:
- Request examinations to receive a diagnosis of an as-yet undiagnosed condition;
- Consult multiple doctors and frequently change treating physicians because they are dissatisfied with the physicians’ reassurances;
- Book frequent checkups and tests;
- Talk about their health status often or out of context;
- Measure their blood pressure frequently;
- Conduct independent research online to self-diagnose;
- Seek continuous reassurance and attention from family members;
- Sometimes avoid medical examinations out of intense fear of their theories being confirmed.
Hypochondriasis: The importance of trust and doctor-patient therapeutic relationship
Typically, people with hypochondriasis are encouraged to seek medical help from their families. To undergo treatment, the patient first needs to feel comfortable discussing health concerns with their doctor. Since the patient will likely have experienced judgment for a long time, they may continue to feel misunderstood by their close community; it is crucial to develop trust and a strong doctor-patient relationship so that these feelings, which are so difficult to control, can be addressed.
Treatment for hypochondria generally involves cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy (CBT) or, in some specific cases, psychopharmacological therapies such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) or antidepressants and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
Maladaptive and dysfunctional cognitive beliefs can be treated with psychotherapy, and the patient’s habits related to excessive seeking of signs of illness can be addressed. The patient can re-learn to recognize normal body sensations and their normal variations.
Finally, the patient can be given practical tips on how to reduce anxiety, such as:
- Engaging in daily physical activity;
- Having a proper diet;
- Avoiding an excess of stimulating substances such as coffee and energy drinks;
- Quitting smoking.