In general, people seem to feel very little sympathy for hypochondriacs. Indeed, many dismiss them as irritating, whiney, and self-obsessed. But hypochondria can also be a serious and deeply distressing condition, ruining careers and even relationships. And it is rarely experienced in isolation. On the contrary, most hypochondriacs are also struggling with anxiety disorders or unresolved trauma.
The Nature of Hypochondria
Anxiety lies at the heart of hypochondria, only this anxiety is triggered by the body rather than by external threats. Hypochondriacs will often monitor every bodily change, no matter how minor, and will assume that these changes mean something dreadful – that every lump indicates cancer, every headache an imminent stroke. Most will also have a troubled relationship with the medical profession, either pestering their doctor and then dismissing his opinion, or simply avoiding him altogether.
Another classic sign is constant self-diagnosis. The English novelist Jerome K. Jerome once visited the British Library to look up a treatment for his Hay Fever but, after browsing through the medical dictionaries, decided he had everything from typhoid fever to St. Vitus Dance and that “the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee!” Of course, Jerome’s article was meant to be comic and amusing, but the reality is often far from it: hypochondria can become so bad that it leads to panic attacks and even agoraphobia. And thanks to the Internet, sufferers can now access information on a scale that would stagger someone like Jerome – though it rarely satisfies them.
The causes of hypochondria vary. Some endure serious illness in youth and never lose the fear of its return. New parents often obsess about their health because they dread not being able to care for their child. This is especially common when the other parent leaves or dies. The child now depends solely on the remaining parent, who is of course aware of this and desperate to treat any disease or illness before it is too late. This hyper-vigilance then gets out of control and, before they know it, they are full-blown hypochondriacs.
Those who were physically or sexually abused also risk developing these problems. Such experiences often leave people with both a heightened sense of vulnerability and a dread of physical pain. If the abuse was combined with neglect, or followed by abandonment, they may also use their hypochondria as a form of manipulation: so long as they are ill, they reason, their loved ones will feel obliged to stay by their side and never go.
Hypochondria can also be a learned behavior. Indeed, hypochondria can even run in families. If an individual’s mother or father lived in constant terror of illness, forever announcing that some minor symptom meant impending death, or constantly dragging them to the doctor, it would be surprising if they did not absorb these fears.
Hypochondria is a habit. And, like most habits, it takes patience, time, and effort to break. First, take care of your body. Draw up a new diet and exercise regimen. Doing everything possible to maintain your physical health should give you a degree of peace. It will also increase your sense of control. Hypochondria derives in part from a feeling of helplessness. The body is a complex machine that can suddenly and fatally break down; everyone knows this, but for some the thought is unbearable. By cutting out sugar and alcohol, quitting smoking, going for a morning run, or whatever it may be, you will take back power. Instead of passively waiting for your body to break down and reacting with panic and horror when it does, the key is to take charge. And eating healthily and taking regular exercise will reduce anxiety and depression, boost energy levels, and make you more inclined to get outside your apartment and meet new people rather than sitting indoors and worrying.
Hypochondriacs often have a troubled relationship with their doctor. Many distrust them, seeking the opinion of a second or even a third. And, understandably perhaps, the doctors themselves may become irritated with, and even hostile towards, hypochondriac patients, reminding them that they have other people to see, people who really are sick and really do need their help. Find the right sort of doctor, ideally someone who recognizes and accepts the way you are. A good doctor will not only take his time to reassure you but will be someone whose opinion you value and trust. So look for someone you find sympathetic and comforting, someone you consider professional and competent.
Next, join a support group. By doing so, you will learn to see your fear for what it is. Best of all, a support group will help you appreciate the absurdity of your disorder. Hopefully, people will share stories about the silly things their hypochondria has led them to think or do. Nothing will help more than laughing with people who understand. After all, as soon as you laugh at something, it loses its power.
If your hypochondria is so bad that it is causing you real distress and interfering in your day to day life, it may be worth undertaking a course of CBT, or “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” During CBT, you learn to monitor and observe your thoughts, tracing them back to deep-rooted “core,” or “underlying,” beliefs.
Such beliefs are often so ingrained, so automatic, that the individual is barely conscious of them. Hypochondriacs sometimes develop these beliefs in childhood. They may, for example, have watched a beloved parent or sibling struggle with chronic illness and have come to believe that only constant vigilance would enable them to avoid a similar fate. Or maybe they were raised by a self-obsessed mother, so addicted to self-help books, and so wrapped up in herself, that only illness and drama were real to her. Her children thus got into the habit of feigning illness to win the care and attention normally denied them. So a deep, subconscious belief develops: I will only receive love when I’m ill. Such examples could be multiplied. Through CBT you will get into the habit of monitoring your thought and behavior, learning to catch yourself before a spiral of fear and catastrophizing begins.
Finally, you need to get outside your own mind. Hypochondriacs are usually wrapped up in themselves, obsessed with every irregular heartbeat, every new lump, cough or ache. But the more time you spend alone with a medical dictionary, the worse your hypochondria will become. People who work from home, especially those who work with a computer, are particularly vulnerable. Not only will they be more likely to look up symptoms, they also have no work colleagues to reassure them. Think through your average week. When are you most likely to be both alone and bored? Maybe your boyfriend plays football every Saturday morning. Or maybe Sunday afternoons are the danger time. Try filling these spare hours with a new activity – preferably something that gets you outside with a group of cheerful, upbeat, sporty people. How about joining a hiking club, for example? Or maybe try birdwatching?
Hypochondria can be challenged and overcome. But, like most mental health problems, it demands courage, determination and hard work.