Typical symptoms of hypochondria include:
• Extreme anxiety or fear about having a particular disease.
• Worries that minor symptoms may mean you have a serious disease.
• Repeated doctor’s visits and exams.
• Frequently switching doctors.
• Cyberchondria, the obsessive health research on the Internet for information about illnesses and their symptoms.
• Frequently checking the body for problems such as lumps, sores or aches.
• Frequently checking vital signs, such as blood pressure, pulse or temperature.
• Inability to be reassured by medical exams that show nothing is wrong.
• Thinking you have a disease after reading or hearing about it.
• Refusing to see a doctor for fear of getting the bad news that you have a serious illness.
— R.J. Ignelzi
HANDLING HEALTH ANXIETY
If someone you care about exhibits symptoms of hypochondria or if you think you may suffer from it, there are some simple things that can be done to temper this health anxiety.
Stop doctor shopping. “Find one doctor you really trust, and admit to him or her that you have health anxiety. Work together with that doctor,” says Jill Stoddard, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management in Mission Valley.
Stop trying to diagnose yourself on the Internet. It will only fuel anxiety.
Skip disease-of-the-week TV shows and movies.
Resist frequent body monitoring. Talk you to your doctor about what self-checks you should perform and how often. Stick to that plan.
Keep an open mind if your physician advises you to see a mental-health specialist to be evaluated. Be willing to consider the possibility that you have hypochondria. Ask a trusted friend or relative who knows you well whether he or she believes you would benefit from a mental evaluation.
Ask for support. Tell your family and friends that you have hypochondria and ask for their patience and understanding.
Join a group. Anxiety support groups can help you bond with people who share common concerns, and you may learn additional coping strategies. Groups also allow you to talk about your health anxiety, which can help reduce it.
Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol can increase paranoia and interacts badly with anti-anxiety drugs.
— R.J. Ignelzi
Even the healthiest people experience annoying little aches and pains occasionally. Most of us tend to ignore them or just learn to live with them. However, for 5 percent to 10 percent of the population who suffer from hypochondria, these minor maladies are exaggerated into major illnesses.
In their minds, a headache becomes a brain tumor. A cough must be lung cancer. A little indigestion means heart disease. Often dismissed as neurotic time-wasters, hypochondriacs’ constant fixation and anxiety about their health can be as disabling as a real physical illness.
“Hypochondriacs become their symptoms. They have such an inappropriate preoccupation with the smallest physical problem that it gets in the way of normal living, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says George Pratt, clinical psychologist and vice chairman of psychology at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. “Many of the symptoms that hypochondriacs feel are often physical sensations caused by anxiety or depression that can go along with hypochondria. The constant worrying can release harmful stress hormones and do real physical damage.”
Simply telling a hypochondriac that they’re not physically sick is never enough reassurance. They’re likely to doctor-hop, going from one medical practitioner to another looking for affirmation of their feared illness, only creating more anxiety and frustration.
“They may have had every test under the sun and feel briefly reassured, but then that strong belief that something is wrong comes right back,” says Jill Stoddard, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management in Mission Valley.
Then, there’s the other side of hypochondria — people who are so afraid they are seriously ill that they won’t go near a doctor or medical
test because they can’t bear what they believe will be bad news.
Considered a somatoform disorder, or a psychological disorder with physical symptoms, hypochondria occurs equally in men and women and can develop at any age, but most often begins in early adulthood. Although it doesn’t seem to have a genetic link, the mental disorder may be triggered by life events. When a close family member or loved one dies or is very ill, a person can start experiencing symptoms of hypochondria. The death of a loved one very early in life has also been shown to increase the risk. It’s estimated that up to 10 percent of all visits to primary-care physicians may be because of hypochondriacal fears.
The Internet is nirvana for a hypochondriac, with medical research, disease blogs and self-diagnosis only a few mouse clicks away. The phenomenon is so common it has a name: cyberchondria. Add to that the television commercials for pharmaceuticals that must now spell out every possible side effect, and hypochondriacs have hundreds of illnesses to obsess over.
“Some people search and scan for these for hours and hours. It can be overwhelming. It’s important to be aware (of health risks), but not preoccupied,” Pratt says.
In addition to being fixated on disease information and symptoms, hypochondriacs often have an obsessive need for self-monitoring, called body vigilance. Many sufferers check their blood pressure, pulse and temperature several times a day and constantly scan their bodies looking for lumps, bumps or bruises.
“If you look closely enough and often enough, you’re probably going to find something, no matter how insignificant,” Stoddard says, explaining that the over-monitoring feeds into a vicious circle. “They take and retake their blood pressure, and the more anxious they get the higher their blood pressure. It’s not because anything is wrong; it’s just because they’re anxious.”
Besides the worry and stress hypochondria causes, it can also result in major life problems. It can ruin relationships as friends and family grow weary of hearing about imagined health complaints. It can be a huge financial burden to continue to see doctors and have needless and expensive medical tests. A hypochondriac’s job may suffer with frequent absences or sick days.
And if a hypochondriac really does develop a serious medical problem, it could be like the boy who cried wolf. Medical practitioners won’t take it seriously.
“When a person has seen a doctor multiple times for exaggerated minor symptoms, the doctor may end up minimizing them and not give them the full tests necessary to rule out (an illness). They’ll just placate them,” Pratt says.
There are two main treatments for hypochondria: psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy is considered quite effective for the condition as it helps patients recognize and understand the false beliefs that trigger health anxiety. It also helps them learn to stop behaviors associated with the anxiety, such as constantly monitoring their body for problems.
Some antidepressant medications, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may also help relieve some of the anxiety symptoms.
However, because hypochondriacs are convinced they are physically ill, not mentally ill, it’s often difficult for them to seek professional counseling or medication on their own. That’s why it is so important for friends and loved ones of people exhibiting symptoms of hypochondria to lend support and intervene early.
“It’s often tough to convince a hypochondriac patient that they’re not really sick. They rarely stay in (therapy) treatment, and it’s difficult to get them to take their medications,” says Dr. Krauz Ganadjian, a psychiatrist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “For most hypochondriac patients, the condition is chronic.”
So how can you help hypochondriacs get the treatment they need?
“Try not to tell them they’re a hypochondriac. That doesn’t help,” Ganadjian says. “Instead, focus on their distress.”
Stoddard suggests trying to “roll with their resistance,”
“Take the position that you’re sorry they have all of these medical problems, but (you want them to) live their best life possible even with these health conditions. Suggest that it may help to talk to (a therapist) to help them cope,” Stoddard says. “Demonstrate to them that you’re on their side, and you empathize with the bad hand they’ve been dealt.”Copyright © 2019, The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. All rights reserved.