What is hypochondria?

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A hypochondriac is a person who has a fear of illness and often worries too much about whether she's sick
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Often laughed at, hypochondrics are not just faking it.

If you're having stomach pains, you usually attribute it to something like a virus or indigestion. Some of us though think the pains indicate they have stomach cancer. They might also think the chest pain they're feeling isn't from lifting that heavy box yesterday, it's from the heart disease they know they've developed. We've all heard someone complain about serious illnesses they think they have. If the person complains often, we likely suspect they may be a hypochondriac. 

What Is Hypochondria?

When we call someone a hypochondriac, do we know what that means? One of the medical definitions of hypochondria is a preoccupation with fears of having, or the idea that one has, a serious disease based on a misinterpretation of one or more bodily signs or symptoms, according to the American Psychiatric Association

It mainly affects people ages 20 to 30 and up to an estimated eight percent of the population. Even though we tend to think older people complain more, hypochondria is actually a condition affecting younger adults. More than someone's desire for attention, it's a serious phobia. It's not a disease, but it can be debilitating.

The Myths About Hypochondriasis

One of the misconceptions people have about hypochondria is that the person is just faking it. Because the person will complain excessively even though doctors can't find anything wrong, they seem to just be looking for attention.

In reality though, they are truly convinced and scared that the worst is going to happen to them. Because of their convictions they suffer from severe anxiety and worry. This in turn can actually bring about real, medical symptoms like muscle aches, dizziness and chest pains. These distressing physical complaints reaffirm their belief that something is terribly wrong.

Hypochondria Explained

What is hypochondria when you break it down? It usually begins in early adulthood, sometimes after a serious illness or death of someone close to the person. Or the sufferer may constantly fear they are going to develop an inherited condition if one is present in their family.

Here's a list of the main symptoms:

  • Excessive worrying about health

  • Persistent fear of having a serious illness despite medical reassurances

  • Misinterpretation of body signs and symptoms such as a runny nose or sore throat

  • Symptoms that shift and change

  • Symptoms that can't be explained by medical conditions or physical disorders 

  • Symptoms prompting fears of illness that persist for at least six months

  • Sometimes the person will focus on one organ or part of the body like the lungs. Or they will complain of vague or ambiguous symptoms like sore veins


Treatment Options

Medical researchers believe many patients suffering from hypochondria can significantly improve with treatment from their medical doctors and psychiatrists. 

A primary health care doctor can rule out a physical basis for symptoms like illness or injury. A psychiatrist or psychologist may help with medicine and by changing the patient's way of thinking through cognitive behavior therapy. This type of therapy helps the patient restructure their beliefs about illness and their health. It teaches them ways to change their thinking and behaviors concerning symptoms and perceived illnesses.

A psychiatrist can also help with assessing the patient for underlying mood disorders like depression. Usually the person suffering from hypochondria will benefit most from their primary physician and their psychiatrist working together. In this way both physical and psychological symptoms can be managed together.

Do You Suffer From Hypochondria?

Here's a self-test. There are tests a person can take if they think they or someone they know might suffer from this condition. The Whiteley Index is a widely used questionnaire to find hypochondria. Below is a sampling of the questions.

  1. Do you worry a lot about your health?
  2. Do you think there is something seriously wrong with your body?
  3. When you feel ill and someone tells you that you are looking better, do you feel annoyed?
  4. Are you bothered by many aches and pains?
  5. If a disease is brought to your attention through someone you know or by someone on television, do you worry about getting it yourself?

We've all occasionally worried about whether or not we have a serious illness; it's only natural. However, if you have worries about your health or body that last six months or more, you may want to seek the advice of a physician. 

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