Hypochondriasis is the medical name for illness anxiety disorder, a disorder that affects four to six percent of the general population. Hypochondriasis is defined as the excessive and persistent fear that one has a serious illness, despite medical reassurance and diagnostic testing indicating otherwise. While mild or occasional concern that you are ill or have a particular ailment may be common, people with it generally have persistent anxiety over medical issues, some of which may be out of the realm of possibility.
Hypochondria is the more common word for hypochondriasis, and while it used to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it no longer appears there as such. The new version of the manual redefines hypochondria as illness anxiety disorder. Another related ailment is included in the manual, today: somatic symptom disorder describes a person who has one or more chronic somatic symptoms about which they are excessively concerned, preoccupied or fearful.
The major symptoms of illness anxiety disorder revolve around the preoccupation with the notion that one is seriously ill despite a lack of real symptoms. Some people may overreact to minor injuries or ailments. Other symptoms include:
Hypochondriasis is a cyclical disorder, meaning small things such as a mild cough can trigger irrational and disproportional reactions. If the underlying trigger disappears, something else down the road may cause another episode. Often doctors will identify a problem due to frequent medical visits that do not result in diagnoses.
The cause of this illness isn't fully understood, but there are usually both genetic and social factors involved. Research has found people raised in families who focused intensely on health and wellness may be at a higher risk for illness anxiety disorder. Having a legitimate prior illness could also lead to hypochondriasis.
Illness anxiety disorder most commonly develops in the 20s and 30s and affects females more often than males. Although initial development tends to take place in younger years, the condition often gets worse as a person ages. Those who suffer from general anxiety or persistent worrying are also more prone to developing hypochondriasis.
Though people with hypochondriasis often do not have the medical conditions about which they are anxious, the condition can lead to life complications if it goes untreated. The symptoms of illness anxiety disorder take a toll on both the individual and his or her friends and loved ones. Frequent medical appointments or sick days lead to excessive absences and issues in the workplace. The financial burden of doctors' visits and medical intervention could lead to economic stress.
The most impactful step you can take if a friend or a family member has illness anxiety disorder is encouraging them to see a physician or mental health professional. However, it is important to discourage excessive trips to the doctor that may exacerbate their hypochondriasis. Educate yourself on the ailment and be supportive and available to talk when he or she needs you, but do not feed the anxiety.
Because illness anxiety disorder is a cyclical ailment, it is important to learn the signs of an oncoming episode and seek help as soon as you are feeling vulnerable. Have a support system in place, such as family members you can call and a physician familiar with your medical history and diagnoses. It can be beneficial to develop a treatment plan with your doctor and be sure to abide by the plan.
Either a physician or mental health professional can diagnose the disorder. Certain information such as a log of symptoms, medical history, medications, and personal information will help he or she make the diagnosis, along with both physical and psychological evaluations.
Illness anxiety disorder often requires a combination of both medical and psychological treatment. Medication treating underlying depression or anxiety can have a huge benefit to someone with hypochondriasis. Therapy is beneficial for identifying underlying fears and anxieties, changing the way the individual responds to symptoms, and creating a plan to lead a productive and healthy life.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.