The term hypochondriasis is derived from the old medical term hypochondrium which means “below the ribs” because most people with this condition have abdominal complaints. When we think of a hypochondriac we tend to think of Woody Allen and characters he’s played that are constantly in fear of having some terrible medical illness which, of course, never really exists.
Hypochondriasis is a person’s inaccurate interpretation of real physical sensations that have no actual medical cause. The preoccupation with having a serious disease causes a lot of distress and compromises a person’s ability to function in important areas of their life. About five percent of people have this condition. It affects men and women equally and it most often develops in a person’s 20s. It often comes along with depression and/or anxiety. Despite tests a doctor may give demonstrating that the person is well physically, she or he is convinced otherwise. Over time, the person may become convinced she has developed a new disease.
There are several theories as to the cause of hypochondriasis:
- A lower pain threshold which leads to a misinterpretation of any normal pain experienced.
- A wish to be sick so as to escape insurmountable stresses and be excused from difficult responsibilities.
- A defense against feelings of guilt and a belief of being a bad person. The pain becomes a “deserved” punishment for past real or imagined wrongdoings.
- A variation on symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Hypochondriasis often arises after a traumatic event like the death or serious illness of a loved one. This usually goes away with time. Children can also experience hypochondriasis; it usually goes away during the late teenage years.
Most hypochondriacs do not want to understand the psychological reason for their problem because they firmly believe the cause is physical, not psychological. A regular check up is helpful. This assures the patient that she is fine physically and gives her attention from the doctor which hypochondriacs often seek.
On the other hand, doing unnecessary tests or procedures is not a good idea and will only increase the concern that something is wrong. Attention to stress in the person’s life and identifying any relationship problems with loved ones can be helpful — these are often the underlying source of the problem. However positive reinforcement to the person for playing the “sick role” is a very bad idea — it will only lock in the belief that they really do have an illness.
Group therapy is often helpful. Feedback from others going through the same thing provides a social support that reduces anxiety and tends to make the person less afraid of illness.
While it’s tough to live with a hypochondriac, it isn’t helpful to ignore them or tell them they don’t feel anything, because they do. The pain they feel is real. Reacting to their stress without buying into the illness is the best road to take. And, of course, encourage them to seek psychological treatment.
Have you or someone you know ever had hypochondriasis? What has been your experience with this? Share your thoughts below.