Hypochondriasis is the term used to describe excessive concern about having a serious illness in the absence of medical evidence for the illness that lasts for at least six months. Hypochondriasis has also been called health phobia, health anxiety and illness anxiety. It can be described as the misperception of bodily sensations as evidence of serious medical conditions and can cause high anxiety that leads to significant distress and/or impairment. Hypochondriasis can occur in the absence or in the presence of a medical illness, in which case, the concern is much greater than would be reasonable for the level of disease. Hypochondriasis is a somatoform disorder and and illness anxiety disorder. It can develop at any time of life, but most often begins in early adulthood. Men and women are affected equally.
People who suffer with hypochondriasis are often preoccupied with body or mental symptoms and caught in cycles of being preoccupied with their body, constantly self-examining, seeking reassurance from others, consulting numerous medical professionals and self-diagnosing on-line. Despite frequent reassurance seeking, any relief obtained is most often short-lived and the anxiety and fear return. Symptoms such as pain and fatigue are commonly reported and normal body functions such as breathing and stomach sensations often become concerns. The health concerns are often severe enough to negatively impact an individual’s relationships, work and social life, so this disorder can often be exasperating and confusing for the individual, their medical team and for family and friends. Anxiety and depression often co-occur with the health concerns. It is important to understand that individuals with hypochondriasis are not lying or making up their symptoms, they actually believe that they are ill.
The most important goal in treatment is to help the affected individual live as full and healthy a life as possible despite their ongoing symptoms.
There is some evidence that hypochondriasis includes intrusive thoughts of death, dying, and suffering; therefore, it is similar to obsessive compulsive disorder in which intrusive thoughts trigger distress. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating hypochondriasis. Understanding this condition as an anxiety disorder has helped to offer effective treatment options – it was previously thought to be treatment-resistant. Helping clients to understand what activates their anxiety and keeps it going enables them to change behaviours and reframe thoughts to reduce the overall distress and improve their quality of life. The challenge with hypochondriasis is that many sufferers have a difficult time understanding how stress and anxiety could contribute to their problem, so they resist seeking appropriate treatment.
Antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs have been used with some success in people with hypochondriasis who also have a mood disorder or anxiety disorder.
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