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Hypochondria: not feeling safe in your own body


Last updated 7/3/2008 at Noon

Hypochondriacs have long been the butt of jokes on television and in movies, but people who suffer from this form of anxiety don’t think there’s anything to laugh at.

Hypochondria isn’t a physical problem, even though it is all about the misinterpretation of physical systems. The imagination of the hypochondriac transforms normal, benign physical sensations or bodily functions into terminal illnesses or diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s or heart disease.

The Mayo Clinic lists several common symptoms of hypochondria:

1. Excessive fear or anxiety about having a particular disease or condition

2. Worry that minor symptoms mean you have a serious illness

3. Seeking repeated medical exams or consultations

4. Frequently changing doctors

5. Obsessive health research

6. Frequent checking of the body for problems such as lumps or sores

7. Frequent checking of vital signs like blood pressure or pulse

8. Inability to be reassured by good medical exams

9. Thinking you have a disease after reading or hearing about it

A hypochondriac may also interpret normal daily slip-ups, such as misplacing one’s sunglasses and not remembering where they are, as a sign of Alzheimer’s or normal fatigue to be indicative of chronic fatigue syndrome.

The level of hypochondria varies from person to person. A less intense hypochondriac may worry about health and disease but not feel compelled to haunt doctor offices until they get the diagnosis they want.

A more obsessive hypochondriac can spend countless hours researching the disease they believe they have and seeking out doctors who will agree with their diagnosis. Until they find this doctor, they go from office to office demanding numerous tests to prove they are correct. When the tests come back normal, the obsessive hypochondriac will believe that the medical care is substandard.

What triggers hypochondria varies: a parent may get cancer and you wonder if you’re next. Perhaps a friend dies from a heart attack or stroke and every headache or episode of fatigue leaves you wondering if your own heart or brain is about to pop.

Hypochondria can also wax and wane, becoming more pronounced during times of greater stress such as during a job loss, move or divorce.

Hypochondria is considered by many doctors to be on the spectrum of anxiety disorders and can be treated with psychotherapy and medications.

Most of the references I found admitted that it is not an easy problem to fix and that most patients learn to manage the anxiety, not cure it.

Talk therapy has good success in helping anxious people deal with their feelings of disease, death and not being in control of their health, and the extra bump that antidepressant medications can give the person may be what sets them on the path to feeling safe in their own bodies.

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