What is Hypochondriasis?

Daniel Liden

Hypochondriasis, also referred to as hypochondria or health phobia, is a mental disorder in which an individual believes that some physical ailment, real or imagined, signifies the presence of some severe, often life-threatening illness. This irrational fear usually cannot be dispelled by reason or by the word of a doctor or other medical professional. Even if an individual suffering from hypochondriasis does have some form of illness or condition, he usually makes it out to be far worse than it actually is. Someone who suffers from hypochondriasis is typically referred to as a hypochondriac.

Hypochondriasis can be severe enough to prevent someone from sleeping.
Hypochondriasis can be severe enough to prevent someone from sleeping.

There are a variety of symptoms that can indicate a case of hypochondriasis. Generally, the excessive worry about health and physical symptoms must last for at least six months to be considered a legitimate mental illness; passing worries are not indicative of any major disorder. A preoccupation with symptoms of various diseases is usually the largest indicator of the disorder; a hypochondriac may spend hours each day researching symptoms. A hypochondriac will also begin to imagine that he possesses such symptoms whether or not any physical symptoms exists. The symptoms that a hypochondriac reports are often vague and may change from day to day.

Passing worries about one's health does not indicate hypochondria.
Passing worries about one's health does not indicate hypochondria.

A hypochondriac may have a difficult or unpleasant relationship with his doctor. He may disagree strongly with his doctor if he is told that he is not suffering from any serious illness. He is particularly likely to be upset if his doctor actually diagnoses him with hypochondriasis. Often, he may try to switch doctors or at least to get a second opinion, only to become more upset upon hearing the same results.

A hypochondriac taking his pulse while reading information about diseases online.
A hypochondriac taking his pulse while reading information about diseases online.

Treatment for hypochondriasis can be difficult, as it is often a chronic disorder. There is no specific known cause for the disorder, and it is often not entirely treatable unless an underlying physical or psychological cause can be discovered and treated. Usually, a good relationship with a supportive physician is the best means to controlling hypochondriasis. If the physician says that there is no major condition but promises to keep following up on the symptoms, the hypochondriac often manages to find some level of comfort. If the physician were to deny that any symptoms existed at all, however, the hypochondriac would likely become very upset.

A hypochondriac may assume that a minor headache is a symptom of brain cancer.
A hypochondriac may assume that a minor headache is a symptom of brain cancer.

Hypochondriasis can cause major problems in an individual's life. He may become so preoccupied with his perceived impending doom that he is unable to focus on his day-to-day activities. Also, if his physician is aware of his condition, he may overlook an actual serious issue that comes up at some point in the future.

True hypochondria is a mental disorder marked by anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior.
True hypochondria is a mental disorder marked by anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior.
The fear that hypochondria exerts is so great that any small ache or pain is treated as a major illness.
The fear that hypochondria exerts is so great that any small ache or pain is treated as a major illness.
Hypochondriacs sometimes have a difficult relationship with their doctor.
Hypochondriacs sometimes have a difficult relationship with their doctor.

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Discussion Comments

Lostnfound

I think the internet is the worst thing in the world for a hypochondriac to have access to. It's too easy to just start researching vague symptoms, and then boom! All of a sudden, you've got bubonic plague -- in spite of the fact that plague is rarely seen in developed countries anymore. It's a really bad habit to get into.

My doctor told me to stay off the Internet to research anything besides taking care of a boil or something similar. She said this was mostly the case because you can't be sure whether you're actually reading good information or not.

Grivusangel

I swear my sister has this. She has IBS, but every so often will start obsessing about how she "knows" she has something more serious, and every ache and pain is magnified into cancer or something similar. She had probably $10,000 worth of scans and tests in one year that showed absolutely nothing wrong with her stomach.

The real trouble is, she's also a diabetic, but does nothing to keep her sugar under control. Some of the symptoms she's been having are almost certainly related to diabetes out of control, while she's going bananas over things she doesn't have. That's a really weird pathology, in my opinion.

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