Hypochondria is a preoccupation with symptoms of an illness when there is no physical evidence of disease. In some people, it is a chronic state but with others, it is sporadic, occurring mostly during periods of depression, anxiety, or stress. Hypochondria is thought to be slightly more common in men than women. The condition affects all age groups, with the peak of incidence in men during their thirties, and in women during their forties. Unlike most people, individuals with this disorder are not reassured when a doctor tells them there is no cause for worry. Instead, they go from doctor to doctor in the hope that an illness will be diagnosed. They rarely consult a mental health professional.
The causes of hypochondria are unknown, but predisposing factors have been identified. In some cases, a real medical disorder paves the way for later hypochondria. An asthmatic child, for example, is more likely to develop an imagined problem, with symptoms unrelated to asthma, than a healthy youngster. In other instances, retreating into sickness allows a person to avoid certain obligations and postpone or escape making decisions. Some studies indicate that people with hypochondria are overly sensitive to physical sensations, what one person may perceive as a minor pinprick, a hypochondriac may feel as a sharp, stabbing pain.
Other Causes of Hypochondriacal Symptoms
In addition to depression and anxiety, schizophrenia and other psychological disorders should also be ruled out before diagnosing hypochondria.
Diagnostic Studies And Procedures
Even when doctors suspect hypochondria, they will order a thorough physical examination and tests because there is always the possibility that the complaints are indeed due to some organic illness. Routine tests usually include blood and urine studies, a chest X-ray,electrocardiogram, and, depending on the symptoms claimed, various imaging scans and other procedures. A patient may be asked to fill out a prepared questionnaire containing a long list of symptoms. Checking off an unusually large number of symptoms that have no medical foundation alerts the doctor to the possibility that the person is prone to hypochondria. Under diagnostic criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association, the following must be present in addition to preoccupation with symptoms and a fear of serious disease that persist for at least six months:
- Appropriate physical examination and tests fail to find any organic explanation for the symptoms.
- The symptoms are not due to panic attacks or other mental disorders.
- The fear of having the disease persists despite a doctor’s reassurances.
- The preoccupation causes significant distress and impairs normal social and occupational functioning.
If a doctor believes that the symptoms mask underlying anxiety or depression, he may prescribe anti-anxiety or anti depressant medications. Otherwise, hypochondria is generally not responsive to medical treatment.
Although people with hypochondria typically resist seeking psychological counseling, treatments involving some form of psychotherapy are most likely to work against the disorder.
Dance Therapy And Tai Chi
These movement therapies may be especially beneficial when depression is contributing to the problem.
Yoga And Meditation
The deep breathing exercises of relaxation techniques are helpful in reducing anxiety that may underlie hypochondria.
Persons suffering from hypochondria are likely to try any number of treatments, both self and medically prescribed, and are unlikely to accept the futility of such attempts. Family members and friends can help by responding in an appropriate manner. Many specialists believe that hypochondria should be thought of as a handicap that can be controlled, even if it can’t be cured. Here are some helpful tactics:
- Listen: Show a sincere, sympathetic interest in the person’s complaints, so that the need for gaining special attention is diminished.
- Don’t argue: Take the symptoms seriously, but explain that stress can make them seem worse.
- Talk about your own feelings: By discussing your anger and frustration and revealing your own emotional upsets, you may be able to lessen the other person’s focus on symptoms.
- Do not recommend any new tests or medicines. Instead, suggest that over medication or drug interactions may be responsible for the symptoms.
- Suggest group therapy, People with a profound need for attention and under standing sometimes benefit from airing their complaints to each other.