Imagine the following scenario: you notice a small, ingrown hair on your leg and pop it. A day later, the pore where the ingrown hair was looks a little puffy. You notice a slight itch, too. You search the Internet for your symptoms, and in 10 seconds you’re sure you have a staph infection. You play it out in your head: maybe it will turn into a really serious staph infection. Maybe it’s the drug-resistant kind.
Or what about this: you have a slight stomachache that has persisted for a few days. It’s not too painful, but you definitely notice it. A few clicks on WebMD and suddenly you’re positive you have pancreatitis. Or toxic shock syndrome. Or stomach cancer. You start taking your temperature hourly, monitoring what you eat and telling everyone who will listen that you might have something serious and you need to see a doctor right away.
Sound familiar? You might have hypochondriasis, a mental disorder in which a person experiences excessive worry or fear about his or her health. But luckily, there are ways to calm down about your health! We talked to clinical psychologist and Psychology Today blogger Dr. Joni Johnston for the lowdown on health anxiety.
What is it?
Hypochondriasis (often referred to as hypochondria, health phobia or health anxiety) is a mental disorder. “Hypochondriasis is essentially the preoccupation with fears of having or the idea that one has a serious disease based on the person’s misinterpretation of bodily symptoms,” Dr. Johnston says.
Hypochondriacs will often seek diagnoses online, from friends and from doctors, but because this anxious behavior is excessive, reassurance from others will typically do nothing. “Essentially, no matter how many doctors the person visits, no matter how many normal tests, etc., the person continues to suffer from these pervasive thoughts and fears—‘Maybe the doctor missed something, maybe it wasn't the right test, maybe I have some form of rare illness that is hard to diagnose,’” Dr. Johnston says.
But just because you’ve been paranoid about your health a few times doesn’t mean you’re a hypochondriac. We’re all guilty of WebMD-ing our symptoms sometimes, but having hypochondria means you have to fit a few other diagnostic requirements. According to Dr. Johnston, as echoed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for diagnosis, a person must experience this excessive worry for at least six months.
“The main difference between occasional anxiety and hypochondriasis is the duration of the preoccupation, the severity and the interference it causes in other areas of a person's life,” she says.
Occasionally Googling your symptoms and asking friends and family what you should do is normal behavior. However, hypochondriacs will do the same, but then when doctors confirm what they actually have or that they’re healthy, they won’t believe it. “One of the hallmarks of this mental illness is that the fears persist in spite of medical evaluation and reassurance,” Dr. Johnston says.
Emma, a junior at Kenyon College, has experienced hypochondria for as long as she can remember. “I have believed myself to be suffering from anything from tonsillitis to a brain tumor,” she says. “It's really hard to explain to someone who doesn't experience it themselves, but the best way I can explain it is that even though I know I sound crazy, every time [I think something is wrong, it] is genuinely terrifying.”
Is it related to other forms of anxiety?
Hypochondria is similar to generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder in that hypochondriacs have irrational and often obsessive fears about their body’s health. “In many ways it can be considered a severe form of health anxiety,” Dr. Johnston says. “The person often [has] pervasive and intrusive thoughts (around health concerns) that she can't seem to shake off.” Like OCD, hypochondria can even have a compulsory feeling. Sufferers may think that they just have to check the Internet or get a doctor’s opinion.
Hypochondria is also comorbid (which means that suffers often have other disorders alongside it) with mental disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, OCD and depression. Additionally, hypochondriacs will sometimes have so much anxiety that the feelings manifest as physical symptoms. Just like some people get stomachaches when they’re nervous, hypochondriacs may develop symptoms such as nausea, stomachache, headache and fatigue simply due to anxiety.
How do you deal with it?
Regardless of if you think you have the mental disorder or if you just experience occasional worrying about your health, there are many techniques you can use to alleviate some of the nerves. However, you should see a doctor first if you think you may struggle with hypochondria.
- Close your Internet browser. Aches or pains? The Internet is the wrong place to go looking for the answer. “Google is full of diagnoses—plenty of them wrong,” Dr. Johnston says. “Enter a symptom—say, stomach pain—and you'll learn you could have anything from appendicitis to esophageal cancer. People, especially those with a predisposition to health anxiety, find themselves a lot more anxious after checking these sites. Do yourself a favor and don't symptom shop on the net.”
- Stick with one doctor. Constantly switching doctors until you’re satisfied with a diagnosis is only going to cause a headache, increasing the likelihood for different diagnoses and unnecessary (and expensive) tests. “Find one who you trust, create a good relationship with him/her and don't make a change,” Dr. Johnston says. “Be open and honest about your concerns and struggles.”
- Don’t self-check. Even if you’re pre-med and convinced you know what you’re doing, avoid constantly checking your temperature, pulse and blood pressure. “Put the at-home medical devices away. Focus on something aside from your body—it's much healthier and more productive,” Dr. Johnston says. Try to distract yourself. Pop in a movie, bake some cookies or do some yoga. Try to remember that the human body is an incredible machine. A random stomachache might actually just be a random stomachache.
- Join a support group. If you find yourself obsessively worrying about your health, seek the support and help of others. “You can swap knowledge and coping strategies, provide reassurance and answer each other's questions. And it helps to know that you're not alone,” Dr. Johnston says. Not into the group therapy? Set up a one-on-one meeting with a counselor at your student counseling center or talk to your doctor.
- Be active. Getting up and out may be the best thing for you even if you just want to lie in bed and use the WebMD iPhone app. “Exercising helps ease stress, depression and anxiety,” Dr. Johnston says. “No need for it to be intense, either; walk the dog, go swimming or do some gardening. Stress makes sufferers feel more anxious, and may also exacerbate symptoms they already have.”
Next time you’re feeling a little nervous about a bump or ache, try out a few of these tips. Remember, distraction is key!
What if nothing helps?
Okay, so you tried all of the tricks above and nothing is helping you relax about the rare disease you’re sure you have. Once a doctor or a psychiatrist diagnoses you with hypochondria, there are options, Dr. Johnston says.
Psychologists agree that a form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective ways of treating hypochondria. CBT is a short-term therapeutic approach where psychologists will help you change the way you think and the way you act through a goal-oriented, step-by-step process.
Your student counseling center may offer this kind of therapy, or you may have to seek out psychologists in your area. Or, you could even use a CBT online program. “New research suggests that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (check out Online Therapy USER) is as effective and more accessible than face-to-face CBT,” Dr. Johnston says.
If hypochondria is making you excessively anxious, your psychiatrist may also suggest medication, like an anti-anxiety medication or an antidepressant. This is a decision you and your doctor/psychiatrist will make together. Emma sees a psychologist and takes antidepressants to help her cope with her hypochondria. Others find better options for them. Like all mental disorders, hypochondria may mean different treatments for different people.
If anxiety about your health has got you on edge, know that you’re not alone! Distract yourself, stay off the health websites and chat rooms and seek the support to a professional if you need it.