AM I A HYPOCHONDRIAC?
Health is a major area of concern. It is generally normal to worry about being healthy and to take the necessary steps to stay healthy. However, when this worry becomes widespread and interferes with several areas of life, to the point of becoming disabling, we can talk about hypochondria, and about hypochondriac person. Here is an explanation of this disorder and its symptoms.
1. What is hypochondria?
Hypochondria or hypochondriacal disorder is a mental health disorder characterised by an exaggerated worry about suffering from a serious illness. This disorder is often accompanied by bodily sensations. People who suffer from hypochondria feel disturbing sensations in their bodies. Headaches, stomach aches, nausea, palpitations, chest pains, accelerated breathing, blurred vision, etc.
These worrying sensations, after medical examination, do not seem to be linked to any somatic illness.
This assessment is not enough to reassure a hypochondriac who remains worried about his health.
2. What are the symptoms of hypochondria?
Hypochondria is characterised by a large number of intrusive thoughts about illness, contamination, perceived abnormal physical sensations and death.
The intensity of the symptoms of hypochondria can vary, but in general, as time goes by, the symptoms invade new areas of life and cause more and more problems in everyday functioning.
The anxiety brought on by hypochondria will also bring on psychosomatic symptoms: palpitations, muscle pain, sweating, among others, physical symptoms that are perceived as signs of a body dysfunction, creating a vicious circle of anticipation and worry.
The relationship with the medical profession is also affected and very ambivalent. The hypochondriac will both seek reassurance from a doctor that he or she is disease-free, as only the doctor knows how to rule out a serious diagnosis, but will also have great anticipation of any medical examination which is fraught with intrusive thoughts of disease and death until the results are announced.
Some people lean more to one side or the other. Some hypochondriacs undergo multiple tests in order to be constantly reassured, while others avoid the medical profession and paradoxically put aside their health, too worried about receiving a too violent diagnosis.
3. What causes hypochondria?
It is difficult to define a precise cause of hypochondria. As with most disorders, it is more a combination of risk factors and vulnerabilities that accumulate and can cause the disorder to develop.
Among the most common risk factors are:
An anxious family environment
The environment plays a particularly important role in learning, especially in the early years of life. Children and adolescents copy the behaviours and emotional reactions of their families and friends. When this environment is anxious in nature, or directly hypochondriacal, then the child is likely to learn to have a disproportionate concern about health which can lead to hypochondria.
Significant life experiences
Intense stress and traumatic events can leave lasting marks on the mind. They can play a very important role in the formation of rigid and dysfunctional thought patterns. Repeated illness, a serious illness in oneself or a loved one, or a bad experience with the medical profession and medicine can lead to the development of bad behaviour and anticipatory thought patterns that can develop into hypochondria.
Avoidance is the driving force behind most anxiety disorders. It is not always intentional and often occurs in a rather discrete way. It is a way of getting out of a particularly unpleasant situation that is imbued with a sense of danger in order to regain a state of safety.
However, it also occurs in situations where the anxiety is perceived but not real. By avoiding the situation, the brain learns that the situation was indeed dangerous, and that escape, either physical or mental, was the right solution. In the future, the brain will therefore more easily implement the avoidance behaviours, which then creates a vicious circle of avoidance and reinforcement of the anxiety disorder.
4. How to treat hypochondria?
Cognitive and behavioural therapies (or CBT) are particularly recommended for the treatment of hypochondria. They help to work on worrying thoughts, reduce behaviours that reinforce the disorder and learn to better manage one’s emotions to reduce worrying psychosomatic symptoms.
Medical hypnosis and EMDR can also prove to be good therapeutic approaches. Work with visualisation and auto-suggestion will desensitise anxious thoughts and anticipations. It is recommended to use these practices in addition to other treatment.
Medication, particularly anxiolytics and beta-blockers, can be recommended as an initial treatment, limited in time, to facilitate psychotherapy and reduce the symptoms that can be really paralysing for moving forward and getting out of this disorder.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapies are CBT-based therapies that allow gentle exposure to a digital environment that generates a similar emotion to real life by decreasing avoidance. They allow the habituation and gradual disappearance of the disorder in situations that are sometimes difficult to live in real life (medical and hospital situations for example) and to learn the right techniques for managing emotions in order to face real problematic situations.