Hypochondria is an obsessive compulsive disorder where every real or imagined symptom is believed to be a sign of disease. Some people suffer a parallel condition with respect to the weather. Every hot,, cold, mild, sunny, cloudy, rainy, dry or windy day is viewed as a sign of a sick climate, infected with man made carbon dioxide.
Below is a description of hypochondria indications and treatments, put together by the OCD Center of Los Angeles.
Hypochondria, also called Hypochondriasis or “Health Anxiety”, is best described as the obsessive, irrational fear of having a serious medical condition. Hypochondria / Health Anxiety is based on an individual’s misinterpretation of symptoms, and exists despite medical reassurance that the individual does not have a disease or illness. Hypochondria / Health Anxiety goes beyond normal concerns with health, and can seriously impact academic and professional functioning, as well as interpersonal relationships.
SYMPTOMS OF HYPOCHONDRIA / HEALTH ANXIETY
Symptoms of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety vary widely from person to person. Some examples of common obsessions seen in Hypochondria / Health Anxiety are:
thinking that a headache is indicative of a brain tumor
believing that a cough must be sign of lung cancer
assuming that a minor chest pain is a heart attack
thinking that a minor sore is a sign of AIDS
Some common examples of compulsions seen in Hypochondria / Health Anxiety include:
multiple doctor visits, often “doctor-hopping” on the same day
multiple medical tests, often for the same alleged condition
repetitive checking of the body for symptoms of an alleged medical condition
repeatedly avoiding contact with objects or situations for fear of exposure to diseases
habitual internet searching for information about illnesses and their symptoms (“Cyberchondria”)
It is estimated that 4-6% of the population has clinically significant hypochondria. Furthermore, recen tresearch suggests that up to 10% of all visits to primary care physicians may be due to hypochondriacal fears. As demonstrated above, Hypochondria has numerous obsessive-compulsive features that are quite similar to those of OCD. One essential difference between the two conditions is that those with OCD often fear getting a disease, while those with hypochondria fear already having a disease. Perhaps the most significant similarity linking OCD and Hypochondria is the cyclical process by which the symptoms of both increase.
TREATMENT OF HYPOCHONDRIA / HEALTH ANXIETY
Because of these many similarities, the same Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques that are so effective in treating OCD are also employed in the treatment of Hypochondria. In fact, recent research studies at both Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic have found that CBT is the most effective treatment for Hypochondria / Health Anxiety. The primary CBT technique used in treating both OCD and Hypochondria is a type of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy called “Exposure and Response Prevention” (ERP). Another CBT technique that is extremely valuable is called “Cognitive Restructuring”, in which clients learn to challenge the validity of their distorted health-related thoughts.
Additionally, a variant of ERP has been developed that has also been found to be extremely effective for the treatment of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety. This method, sometimes called “imaginal exposure,” involves using short stories based on the client’s health obsessions. These stories are audiotaped and then used as ERP tools, allowing the client to experience exposure to feared situations that cannot be experienced through traditional ERP (e.g., getting cancer or AIDS). When combined with standard ERP for the above-noted compulsions, and other CBT techniques such as Cognitive Restructuring, this type of imaginal exposure can greatly reduce the frequency and magnitude of intrusive health-related obsessions, as well as the individual’s sensitivity to the thoughts and mental images experienced in Hypochondria / Health Anxiety.
One of the most effective CBT developments for the treatment of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. The primary goal of Mindfulness-Based CBT is to learn to non-judgmentally accept uncomfortable psychological experiences. From a mindfulness perspective, much of our psychological distress is the result of trying to control and eliminate the discomfort of unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. In other words, our discomfort is not the problem – our attempt to control and eliminate our discomfort is the problem. For an individual with Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, the ultimate goal of mindfulness is to develop the ability to more willingly experience their uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges, without responding with compulsions, avoidance behaviors, reassurance seeking, and/or mental rituals.
Using these tools, clients learn to challenge their hypochondriacal fears, as well as the compulsive and avoidant behaviors they use to cope with their health-related anxiety. If you would like to learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of OCD, Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, and related anxiety-based conditions,