Hypochondria and Illness Anxiety Disorder

Hypochondria and Illness Anxiety Disorder

One of the most frustrating things about suffering from Hypochondria or Illness Anxiety Disorder is the feeling that you know your fears of illness are irrational but they still seem to dominate your thoughts. Non-stop worrying about illnesses and frequent visits to the doctor can be exhausting, time-consuming and sometimes debilitating.

You may find yourself continuously searching the Internet for information, demanding lab tests from irritated doctors, and talking relentlessly about your fears of being sick. Although people suffering from Hypochondria or Illness Anxiety Disorder may think that Internet research or lab tests will reassure them, it’s never enough. The key is to break the cycle of worrying and checking and to deal with the root causes of Hypochondria.

In our experience, Illness Anxiety Disorder is often the result of unprocessed grief and trauma. As we help guide you into dealing with the underlying causes of your hypochondria. As a result, we can help free you from the endless cycle of worry and fear so you can get your life back.

Your pain is an opportunity for you to learn about yourself.

SYMPTOMS OF ILLNESS ANXIETY DISORDER (FORMERLY HYPOCHONDRIA)

The DSM-5 no longer includes hypochondriasis (hypochondria) as a diagnosis. Instead, people may be classified under Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders as having Illness Anxiety Disorder, especially if there are no physical symptoms or they’re mild.

These points are emphasized in the diagnosis of Illness Anxiety Disorder (signs and symptoms):

  • Preoccupation with having or acquiring/getting a serious illness.
  • Somatic/physical symptoms are not present; if present, are only mild in intensity.
  • If another medical condition is present or there is a high risk for developing a medical condition (e.g., strong family history), the preoccupation is clearly excessive or disproportionate [Excessive anxiety signals a much greater threat than actually exists and results in severe distress that can be disabling].
  • There is a high level of anxiety about health, and then you are easily alarmed about personal health status [You believe that normal body sensations (such as a noisy stomach) or minor symptoms (such as a minor rash) are signs of severe illness, even though a thorough medical exam doesn’t reveal a serious medical condition].
  • You perform excessive health-related behaviors (e.g., as repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness) or exhibit maladaptive avoidance (e.g., avoiding doctors appointments and hospitals).
  • Your illness preoccupation:
    • has been present/lasted for at least six months, even though the specific illness you fear may change during that time.
    • is not better explained by another mental disorder, such as somatic symptom disorder, panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Specified by “care-seeking type” (medical care, including physician visits or undergoing tests and procedures, is frequently used) or “care-avoidant type” (medical care is rarely used).

FACTORS AND CAUSES OF HYPOCHONDRIA AND ILLNESS ANXIETY DISORDER

  • Environmental (Beliefs) – You may not understand the meaning of body sensations or you have a poor understanding of diseases or both. This could lead you to think that all body sensations are serious, so you search for evidence to confirm that you have a serious disease. There is also a belief that excessive worrying can frustrate others so emotions are often repressed or you have a poor ability to express them. In other words, you may be more likely to have health anxiety if you had parents who worried too much about their own health or your health (relationship or family problems occur because excessive worrying can frustrate others). Also, work-related performance problems or excessive absences increase.
  • Psychological (Past Negative Experiences & Temperament) – You may have had experience with serious illness, bullying, or abuse in childhood so physical sensations are frightening to you. There may have been a general time of major life stress or loss. This is including the amount and severity of trauma you’ve gone through since early childhood. Personality aspects, often called your temperament (your risk may increase if you’re more sensitive, more inhibited or more negative than the norm) can also be affected. For example, children who are shy, timid, withdrawn or restrained when facing new situations or people may be at greater risk.
  • Other Complications – Problems functioning in daily life, possibly even resulting in disability; Financial problems due to too many health care visits; Having another mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression.

HYPOCHONDRIA AND ILLNESS ANXIETY DISORDER TREATMENT

Treatment of this disorder can be effective and most often includes a combination of:

  • Supportive care – Because symptoms can be related to health problems, it’s important to be in regular/good contact with and be evaluated by a healthcare provider. If symptoms of these disorders are present, your doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose these disorders, the doctor may use various tests to rule out physical illness as the cause of the symptoms. If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a mental health professional, who is specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses.
  • Psychotherapy – Mental health professionals (such as psychotherapists, social workers, or professional counselors) use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for these disorders. People with these disorders are not faking or lying about their symptoms; they truly believe they are sick. For that reason, psychotherapy can be most effective in learning coping skills, altering the thinking and behavior that lead/contribute to the symptoms. Therapy also can help the person learn better ways to deal with stress, and improve his or her social and work functioning. The focus and goal of treatment are on learning to manage/control/improve symptoms, and on minimizing functional problems associated with the disorder to return to daily functioning in their lives. Unfortunately, most people with these disorders deny there are any mental or emotional problems, making them fairly resistant to psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most common approach used to treat people with these disorders.
  • Medications – Antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs are sometimes used if a person with these disorders also has a mood or anxiety disorder.

OTHER OPTIONS FOR HYPOCHONDRIA AND ILLNESS ANXIETY DISORDER

  • Stick to your treatment plan to help prevent relapses or worsening of symptoms – Take medications as directed. Keep therapy appointments. Consistency can make a big difference, especially when it comes to taking your medication. Don’t give up if treatment doesn’t work quickly/remind yourself it takes time. Facing your fears can be difficult, but treatment can help you feel like you’re not a hostage to your symptoms.
  • Self-care – Get enough rest/sleep, eat healthy, and try to be physically active/exercise every day. Avoid substances even caffeine, as it can make anxiety worse. Don’t forget to celebrate successes.
  • Reach out – Consider joining a support group to connect with others facing the same problems and who may understand you. Participate in activities by staying involved in work, social and family activities. Socialize (Don’t let worries isolate you from loved ones or enjoyable activities. Social interaction and caring relationships can lessen your worries).

MORE OPTIONS FOR HYPOCHONDRIA AND ILLNESS ANXIETY DISORDER

  • Break the cycle and learn to recognize when you are stressed and how this affects your body – This knowledge can help you understand what you’re feeling, and then you can develop coping strategies to help you respond effectively. Mindfulness strategies may be helpful in learning how to tolerate anxiety and reduce avoidance behaviors; Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or yoga, may help cope with stress while reducing anxiety symptoms.
  • Avoid searching the Internet for possible diseases – The vast amount of health information that may or may not be related to your situation can cause confusion and anxiety. If you have symptoms that concern you, talk to your doctor at your next scheduled appointment.
  • Take action – Work with your mental health provider and doctor or mental health provider to determine a regular schedule for visits to discuss your concerns and build a trusting relationship. Discuss setting reasonable limits on tests, evaluations and specialist referrals. Avoid seeking advice from multiple doctors or emergency room visits that can make your care harder to coordinate and may subject you to duplicate testing. With your provider’s help, find different ways to manage your worries other than excessive medical testing or avoidance of medical care.

RESOURCES

Hypochondria Therapists

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