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Hypochondriasis

Fear of Illness

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Updated November 22, 2011

Hypochondriasis, or hypochondria, is not technically classified as a phobia. Instead, it is a type of somatoform disorder, which the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Ed.) defines as a mental disorder that mimics the appearance of a medical illness. However, many experts believe that hypochondriasis should be reclassified as a phobia, since it represents a specific fear.

Hypochondriasis or Nosophobia?

Both hypochondriasis and nosophobia are fears of illness. The difference is in the exact nature of the fear. Nosophobia is the fear of developing a specific disease such as cancer or diabetes. Hypochondriasis is the fear that existing physical symptoms may be the result of an undiagnosed disease.

Symptoms of Hypochondriasis

If you suffer from hypochondriasis, you are likely to be extremely aware of minor bodily symptoms such as headaches, joint pain or sweating. You may be convinced that these symptoms are caused by a serious medical disease, and become nervous and obsessed with frequently checking your condition.

Some people with hypochondriasis react with a need for constant reassurance. They may visit the doctor regularly despite tests showing that everything is normal. They may also frequently complain of their symptoms to friends and family members.

Others who suffer from hypochondriasis react in the opposite extreme. They may avoid visiting the doctor for fear of learning bad news. They may be reluctant to share their fears with loved ones, either because they are afraid of having their fears confirmed or because they believe that they will not be taken seriously.

Dangers of Hypochondriasis

It is easy for hypochondriasis to become a self-replicating cycle. Many of the physical symptoms of illness can also be caused by stress. Joint and muscle pain, sweating, nausea and skin conditions are a few of the more common physical symptoms that hypochondriasis suffers worry about. That worry can, in turn, cause these symptoms to worsen and new symptoms to develop. As mentioned above, hypochondriasis may also lead sufferers to avoid seeking medical treatment altogether, thus jeopardizing their health.

Concurrent Disorders

Although researchers are not yet certain what causes hypochondriasis, there is frequently overlap with anxiety disorders. People who have hypochondriasis may also suffer from specific phobias, generalized anxiety disorder and/or panic disorder with agoraphobia, among other conditions.

Treating Hypochondriasis

Traditionally, hypochondriasis has been thought to be untreatable. However, research has shown that some treatments can be effective. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, has become a popular option for treating hypochondriasis. This type of therapy helps sufferers learn to manage the anxiety that they feel towards their physical symptoms. In turn, this can help the symptoms themselves diminish.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are a type of medication that can help to treat hypochondriasis. These drugs are generally known as antidepressants and work by affecting the levels of serotonin in the brain. Examples include Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac.

If you constantly worry about physical symptoms, it is important that you seek treatment. It is generally best to visit your family doctor first, in order to rule out any possible medical cause for your symptoms. If your doctor does not find an illness, then the next step is to seek help from a mental health professional. Untreated hypochondriasis can eventually cause you to limit your life activities due to your fears. With treatment, however, you can get your symptoms under control and move on with your daily life.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Noyes Jr. MD, Russell. "The relationship of hypochondriasis to anxiety disorders." General Hospital Psychiatry. 21:1. January 2, 1999. pp. 8-17. June 9, 2008.

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