Have you ever been accused of being a hypochondriac, or perhaps even described yourself as one? Most people recognize that a hypochondriac is someone who worries too much about his or her own health. But is that the extent of the condition? What’s really behind the term, how are people affected, and how do we identify the symptoms?
Although the term hypochondriac is still commonly used, “health anxiety” is widely seen as being more representative. Plus, as a recognised anxiety disorder, there are treatment options available to help alleviate the causes and symptoms.
Causes of health anxiety
I’ve come across several people who become excessively worried about their own health following some kind of health crisis or death in the family. Stress is a trigger for health anxiety, which in its most extreme form can result in something called “conversion.” Conversion is a disorder in which psychological stress is turned inwards and converts to a physical problem. Conversion symptoms can vary in complexity and severity and may range from aches and pains, weakness or numbness right through to vision or hearing problems, paralysis or convulsions.
However, in most cases of health anxiety the person has medically unexplained symptoms or has great concerns about experiencing one or more forms of illness in the future.
Do you have health anxiety (hypochondria)?
The customary minimum time limit for any diagnosis of health anxiety is six months. During this time you will have experienced at least one of the following:
- You don’t believe the reassurances you’ve received (many times) from your doctor or other health professionals that nothing is wrong.
- Your life has been negatively affected by your concerns over your health.
- You do a lot of checking up. You look up symptoms on the Internet and you check your body for signs of change.
- You feel upset and anxious a great deal of the time.
- You are preoccupied with bodily symptoms, or of having a serious illness, which has lasted at least six months.
Health anxiety is really about beliefs. These beliefs become so strong and embedded that they cause huge distress and affect daily living. One of the most effective treatments therefore is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Working with a trained CBT therapist will reveal the issues that make symptoms worse. In turn this will help to devise methods of coping by changing the beliefs and behaviors that maintain the problem.
Accurate assessment of the problem is necessary, so you might learn that other forms of talk-therapy are more beneficial than CBT, possibly combined with medication.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.