Pains, sensations and discomforts of the body in some form or the other, for durations short or long, are common among people. Most of them, though worried at times, tend to take them as a part of life and if required, take remedial measures that are available. But what happens when someone gets preoccupied with thoughts and behaviors implying that she / he has already developed or is on the verge of developing one or more serious medical conditions? This situation is called Illness Anxiety Disorder, known till recently as Hypochondria or Hypochondriasis.
The common symptoms of Illness Anxiety Disorder are:
- Persistent thoughts of having one or more major illness, with some minor medical symptoms or none whatsoever
- Repeated checking of body conditions for the perceived illnesses
- Avoiding many a joys of life fearing causing of symptoms of the perceived ill-health
- Preoccupied with information-gathering and advice-seeking on the perceived illnesses
- Trying to dig out family history to prove the worrisome perception of the illness
- The mental preoccupation of the imaginary illnesses starts affecting normal functioning (at home, work etc.) adversely
- Frequently visiting doctors, gurus, astrologers, god-men / women etc. (and keeping on changing them) with the perceived serious health condition and to get reassurance from them
- Minor symptoms driving to major health concerns
- Hyper-vigilance on physical or mental health
- Reassurance from doctors / consultants works only for short durations
- Not missing out on opportunities to discuss the perceived health problems with people around
- Most preferred topics of social discussions revolve around health and ill-health
While a person suffering from Illness Anxiety Disorder needs support from the closely connected people in its management, it has to be kept in mind that showing excessive concern to the person’s declared health issues can make things worse. With such a supportive approach and thereby the sufferer’s beliefs getting reinforced, the family environment can become a real hell. The only way out is for the caregivers to gain more awareness on the condition, from an experienced doctor or mental health professional like a psychologist.
Illness Anxiety Disorder cold sometimes be combined with other mental health disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia etc. Caution needs to be exercised while dealing with Illness Anxiety Disorder because it is health-related. Getting a health evaluation of the affected person needs to be done before concluding that the condition really is Illness Anxiety Disorder. If it is getting clear that the situation indeed was Illness Anxiety Disorder, it is essential for the care-giver to understand more about it from the doctor or consultant. Thereafter, it is necessary to seek further referrals to mental health professionals like psychiatrists or psychologists. In this, one should not get bogged down by the traditional belief system that only ‘mad people’ are taken to them.
There can be many contributing factors that may result in Illness Anxiety Disorder. Some of them are:
- Major illnesses suffered in the childhood
- Any of the parents being a hypochondriac
- Childhood bullying faced because of poor health
- Excessive family concerns shown even in minor health issues
- Influence of so called “gurus”, god-men / women, quacks, soothsayers, astrologers, advertisements of medical products marketing people, including of fake products etc.
- Social media forwards, many times by hypochondriacs themselves
As a psychologist, in one of my recent counselling sessions with a person who sought urgent appointment, I found him in extreme mental distress with an abscess in his mouth which he was sure, was nothing but cancer, without visiting a doctor on it even once. He was an educated person and I felt that my efforts during the session to create awareness in him about Illness Anxiety Disorder worked. He visited a doctor soon after and got cured of the problem with some medication involving antibiotics etc.
Illness Anxiety Disorder is often debilitating not only for the sufferer but also for those closely connected, like the family members. The basic step towards a solution to this is gaining more awareness on the problem – both for themselves and for the sufferer. But in an environment wherein mental health is considered as a laughable topic, such an awareness-generation is usually the first casualty!