‘I have every disease there is’: Hypochondria
In the information age, it’s difficult to spend a day without hearing about yet another something-or-other that causes cancer or some other horrible disease. From lipstick to bananas, to the ink in your printer, you never know what might be bad for you, so it’s good to be vigilant.
But what happens when being responsible about your health turns into paranoia? When you begin to imagine that your life is an episode of House, M.D. and only someone with the medical smarts of the TV doctor/detective can diagnose your rare and strange disease, you may have hypochondria.
Hypochondria is defined as the fear of having a serious disease. People suffering from hypochondria fear that they already have a serious disease and these fears are often self-enforced because the individual will try to find as much information as they can about the diseases that they believe they have (read here about how doing internet searches for your symptoms might be a bad idea). This preoccupation causes significant disruption to the person’s daily life.
Disruptions to daily life
Someone who does not suffer from hypochondria is able to fairly subjectively assess the potential problems that a symptom they develop may have. For instance, a reasonable response to the concern of the appearance of a rapidly growing mole is to make an appointment with a doctor or dermatologist. People suffering from hypochondria will continue to fear cancer even after seeing the doctor, or dermatologist, and getting several second opinions, each of which conclude that the mole is benign and nothing to be worried about. They will imagine that they have additional symptoms and ‘self-diagnose’ cancer and try to convince others, including doctors, that they have cancer.
Although this response is unreasonable, it is equally unreasonable not to have a rapidly growing mole checked by a doctor.
Fear of disease
This fear is usually based on a misinterpretation of bodily symptoms or functions. The fear of having a serious disease tends to persist despite doctors’ assurances that there is nothing to be concerned about.
There are several things which may trigger hypochondriacs’ concerns of serious disease:
•Bodily functions. People with hypochondria might have a preoccupation with their bodily functions, frequently misinterpreting normal bodily functions. Sweating, heartbeat, urine output, and other functions may be closely monitored to the point of obsession – careful logging of bodily functions.
•Minor physical abnormalities. The preoccupation might be to do with small, trivial physical abnormalities – like a mole, bump, lump, scratch, or sore.
•Vague and ambiguous physical sensations. The complaint may be less specific and diagnostically irrelevant. For instance, some complaints of hypochondriacs may be tingling teeth, a tired heart, or aching veins.
The preoccupation can often be overwhelming and little or no medical expertise can allay the fears of the person suffering from hypochondria. The preoccupation is not assisted by the media and the endless amounts of information available to the person who often consumes it enthusiastically. Every piece of information they find about the disease they believe they have makes them believe they have it to an even greater extent.
The symptoms of hypochondria vary from mild (occasional preoccupation with one disease that eventually fades until something triggers it) to severe (continuous, obsessive and extremely debilitating preoccupation with one or many diseases). Here are some of the symptoms:
•Long term preoccupation with the fear that you have a serious disease.
•Concern that every minor complaint is a symptom of a very serious, rare, and undiagnosed disease.
•Seeing one doctor often and continuously seeking second opinions.
•Going to different doctors frequently.
•Continuously having multiple tests and scans for various disease and symptoms, even to the extent of exploratory surgery.
•Continuously talking about the fear of having a serious disease, symptoms of the disease, and a continuous preoccupation with discussing the disease and doctors.
•Obsessively researching medical- and health-related topics.
•Continuously checking, screening, and monitoring your own body for abnormalities (and finding them).
•Believing that you have every disease you hear about, or being able to identify with symptoms of diseases you hear about.
The difference between normal concerns and hypochondria is the extent of the concern and the active engagement with it. If, despite numerous doctors telling you otherwise, you still believe that you have a disease and can find symptoms of that disease in yourself, then you are a hypochondriac.
While it’s prudent to be cautious of your health, becoming obsessed with it has severe and serious consequences for your mental health. If you believe that you or a loved one may have symptoms of hypochondria, ironically, it is best to consult a doctor or psychologist for treatment options. In many cases, when someone understands that they are prone to hypochondria, they have a better chance of being able to control their compulsions.