Hypochondriasis, or the obsessive fear of having a serious medical condition or illness, can cause great distress and have a detrimental impact on a person's daily life. Although the exact cause is unknown, this article discusses the factors that may contribute to the development of the disorder.
Definition and Prevalence of Hypochondriasis
Although hypochondriacs exhibit similar behaviors as those with an obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder, they are actually suffering from a somatoform disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), somatoform disorders are a group of disorders that cause the sufferer to report physical symptoms of an illness that cannot be explained by a medical condition, substance use and/or abuse or another mental disorder.
People with hypochondriasis are obsessively preoccupied with the fear of developing or having a serious medical illness. They will misconstrue normal body functions or magnify any minor irregularity into symptoms of something more serious. For example, in the mind of a hypochondriac a small lump becomes a cancerous tumor or a slight cough is pneumonia.
Approximately 0.8 percent to 8.5 percent of adults in the US have hypochondrias. Also, anxiety over one’s health is fairly common – about 10 percent to 20 percent of generally healthy people and 45 percent of people who do not have any psychiatric disorders have periodic unsubstantiated fears about their health.
What Causes Hypochondriasis?
Despite its prevalence, the exact nature of hypochondriasis causes is unknown. However, there are many factors that may contribute to its development:
Heightened awareness of bodily sensations – One theory is that hypochondriacs tend to be more conscious of what is happening physiologically within their bodies, resulting in the exaggeration of those sensations regardless of whether they are normal or irregular. Because of this hypersensitivity, hypochondriacs become distressed if their “normal" sensations change or fluctuate, leading to an amplification of the sensations that further convinces them that they are, indeed, gravely ill. Stress and other situational events, such as a minor health incident, can exacerbate these fears and cause the worry that their symptoms are indicative of a serious illness about to worsen. Also, hypochondriacs are more likely to have lower pain thresholds and are less tolerant of physical discomfort, which helps intensify their fears.
Gross misinterpretation of physical symptoms – Another theory is that instead of hypochondriacs being more sensitive to perceived changes in their bodily functions, they are significantly misreading their symptoms and convincing themselves that they are seriously ill because they are generally negative regarding their health status and overestimate their risk of becoming sick. People without hypochondriasis believe they are well unless there is confirmation of an illness; hypochondriacs are certain they are sick until proven otherwise by a physician or medical testing.
Personal or family history – Many hypochondriacs report a history of physical or sexual abuse; had at least one serious illness as a child; or had a parent die prematurely and they are now approaching the age their parent died. It is also believed that hypochondriasis can be a learned or an inherited behavior if parents and/or close relatives have the disorder.
Neurochemical deficiencies – Since hypochondriasis shares similar characteristics with obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, depression and anxiety disorders, there may be similar brain chemistry issues and/or deficiencies even though they are separate disorders. This may explain why there is often co-morbidity between the disorders and why medication options overlap; however, more research needs to be conducted to conclusively prove this.
Increased availability of medical information through social media – The overabundance of medical information that is so readily available online as well as media preoccupation with reporting on outbreaks of deadly and not-so-deadly diseases or television shows depicting rare diseases as fairly commonplace can cause more anxiety over one’s health.
Hypochondriasis can become a chronic problem is left undiagnosed and/or untreated. Please consult a physician or trained mental health provider for additional information.
Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders website. "Hypochondriasis". http://www.minddisorders.com/Flu-Inv/Hypochondriasis.html
Medical News Today website. "What is Hypochondria?". http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/9983.php
WebMD.com website. "Mental Health and Hypochondria". http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/hypochondriasis
Xiong GL. "Hypochondriasis". http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/290955-overview