“Oh, don’t be a hypochondriac.” Chances are that you’ve heard something like that before, so you have a general sense of what hypochondria is. However, it’s a serious medical condition, and most people aren’t aware of the full spectrum of symptoms that comprise it.
Hypochondria or Illness Anxiety Disorder
Hypochondria, also called hypochondriasis, is a type of anxiety disorder. It used to be listed in the DSM, which is the reference manual that psychologists and other professionals refer to when determining whether or not someone has a particular diagnosis. It’s no longer listed there under this term but instead you will now find a similar condition called Illness Anxiety Disorder.
What is Illness Anxiety Disorder?
This condition is a type of anxiety that manifests specifically around fears about illness. Anxiety is characterized by worry. In the case of hypochondria, you become worried that you are very ill or may become very ill. In some cases, people with hypochondria don’t show any physical symptoms of the illness that they are afraid of. However, in most cases, they mistake normal or mild bodily sensations with serious illness. For example, you might have a small stress headache, which is something that people get every day, but become wrought with worry that it’s a sign of a brain tumor.
Symptoms of Hypochondria
The tricky thing about hypochondria is that the fear itself can manifest as physical symptoms. For example, if you have a mild headache, but then you become stressed about what it might mean, it can lead to a worse headache or more frequent headaches. Stress causes physical symptoms, so it’s natural that your body will show symptoms of stress when you have anxiety about your health.
Therefore, you can’t rely on physical symptoms to determine whether you’re truly ill or have illness anxiety disorder. Instead, you have to look at the emotional/psychological symptoms, which include:
- Always assuming that minor symptoms are a sign of serious illness
- Avoiding people and situations that you fear will make you unhealthy
- Constant fear that you are ill or will become ill
- Distrust of negative test results and doctors who say that they can’t find anything wrong
- Dwelling on specific medical conditions and looking for signs of them
- Making an abnormal number of doctor appointments (either too many or avoiding them altogether)
- Obsessively scanning your body for signs of illness
- Regularly feeling worried about your health
- Talking frequently about your own health and illness concerns
In particular, pay attention to how these symptoms show up in your life and whether they impact your functioning. In other words, if you suffer poor school or work performance, or these fears are beginning to impact your relationships, then there’s a problem.
Other Conditions Similar to Hypochondria
Recently society has developed a new term called cyberchondria. This refers to people who constantly go online to check out medical symptoms, then become preoccupied with fear that they have those conditions. This isn’t an official term listed in the DSM. However, it’s increasingly common behavior among hypochondriacs. Therefore, if you find yourself doing this, it could be a symptom of Illness Anxiety Disorder.
There is another condition that is listed in the DSM and it can seem similar to hypochondria. That condition is somatic symptom disorder. In this condition, the person worries and obsesses over their physical symptoms. The difference is that they aren’t worried about the specific illness that those symptoms might indicate. If you’re worried about illness, as opposed to focusing on one symptom such as muscle pain, then you’re looking at hypochondria. If you are obsessed with the one symptom then it’s probably somatic symptom disorder.
Another similar condition is Munchausen syndrome, also called Fictitious Disorder. In this case, the individual pretends to have symptoms of illness or causes their own symptoms, in order to get treatment from doctors. This differs from hypochondria in that the person isn’t afraid of getting ill; they’re pretending to be ill.
Hypochondria is tricky because you do need to rule out the physical ailments that you’re afraid you might have. Therefore, you might see your primary care physician as a starting point for treatment. However, since this is an anxiety disorder, it’s ultimately best treated by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other licensed mental health professional. As with other anxiety disorders, there are different treatment options, including medication, talk therapy, and behavioral therapy.