Psychiatrist Berney Goodman, writes, “Hypochondria is an emotional disorder involving unremitting fears of illness and somatization symptoms that last for more than six months and cause significant disability” (34). Hypochondria are much more psychological and people who suffer from don’t realize the disease is, as many may inaccurately describe it, “all in their heads.” Hypochondria are a medically recognized disease that people of all ages need to be aware of in order to avoid it, treat it, and eventually cure it.
Many people do not categorize hypochondria as an illness or a disease and have a derogatory attitude toward it. Most people have been irritated by someone who they know is faking sick. It is not easy to feel for hypochondriacs when some people just categorize them as “liars” or “fakers.” Carla Cantor, author of Phantom Illness, gives an example of such a belief, “Hypochondriacs are thought to be the self-centered complainers who believe they are ill when they are not and who reject all help that doctors try to provide” (ix). Most physicians have come to the realization that hypochondria are a disease, but maybe not for their kind of practice.
Hypochondriacs show many obvious symptoms. They usually are always frightened of major diseases such as AIDS, cancer, or multiple sclerosis and use typical body sensations as major symptoms of a fatal disease. They will go to their parents or doctors complaining that their legs feel numb and that they believe they are getting multiple sclerosis. These are only typical body sensations that average people daily. In an article in Health titled “How To Cure a Hypochondriac,” Deborah Franklin states,
“Hypochondriacs don’t necessarily feel worse than the rest of us; instead, they have a misguided conception of what it means to be healthy. In short, hypochondriacs believe that good health is completely symptom free, and anybody with vaguely uncomfortable sensations is, by definition, sick” (26). This is why many doctors have such a derogatory attitude towards these patients. Carla Cantor states, “Doctors find it frustrating to provide the repeated reassurance these patients crave, and many do not consider them to be truly troubled or medically ill” (ix). Such patients will arrive at their doctor’s office complaining of a headache and they have already come to the conclusion that it is a brain tumor. Despite the reassuring advice the physician may give, the patient will not be convinced, and will continue to visit an entire line of doctors until he/she is. Melissa Woycechowsky, a recovered hypochondriac, commented on her realizations of her illness, “There’s really nothing one can say to appease someone who is irrational and convinced that they have a serious disease” (Campbell 193).
Hypochondria have many similarities, and may be derived from, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The diseases have similar roots and have similar symptoms. Vladan Starcevic, who wrote an article in the American Journal of Psychotherapy about the relationship between hypochondria and OCD states, “Hypochondriasis would be conceived of as a more pervasive and more incapacitating form of the same or closely related underlying psychopathology” (348). This is not necessarily saying that one disease is worse than the other; they are very closely related. Melissa Woycechowsky gives a personal memory, “hypochondria have some similarities to OCD, so one thing I did was constantly check myself for lumps. And if you start feeling for lumps in any part of your body, sooner or later, you are going to find them” (Campbell 192). Hypochondria’s symptoms and the symptoms of OCD patients are very similar; however, they are not the only similarity. If there is a medicine that treats OCD, and hypochondria is so similar, the conclusion can be made that there’s a way to treat hypochondria as well. Authors Dean McKay and Fugen Neziroglu prove this: “techniques aimed at reducing OCD problems may be used in treating hypochondria” (4). This is more proof that hypochondria are an actual disease that anyone could be diagnosed with.
There are a variety of characteristics that hypochondriacs can have. Excessive doctor visits are an obvious one. Something that many people don’t know about hypochondriacs is that they don’t just make these illnesses up or overhear people talking about them. That can be the case, but hypochondriacs so their research. Many have been known to sit up nights researching any disease that fits their “symptoms.” They’ll eventually set their mind on just one, probably the most fatal, decide they have it, and become hysterical and paranoid. Benedict Carey, author of the article “The Mind of a Hypochondriac” in Health, states, “the purebred hypochondriac is more often an intelligent, sensitive, and highly suggestible person who’s simply confounded by the modern-day barrage of complex, often conflicting health information” (85). Hypochondriacs seek reassurance, whether they’re going to be reassured or not, from more than just physicians. Many people will go to their family members and friends to seek reassurance. This could tie into the fact that many people fake sick to get attention from their loved ones, however, faking sick and hypochondria are not the same thing. Hypochondriacs are hypersensitive to bodily complaints. They will create the smallest sensation and project it to people that it is the most severe pain they’ve ever felt. They also can create many sensations just by emotionally working themselves up about it. If they convince themselves they’re having severe stomach pains and stress their emotions and bodies about it, chances are they will start to feel a little queasy. Melissa Woycechowsky, a recovered hypochondriac tells about an experience:
I became convinced that I was HIV positive, even though I wasn’t. I knew I hadn’t put myself at risk because I always used condoms and had never taken IV drugs. But I started to believe that there were other ways HIV could be transmitted. […] I also called three different hotlines and took free HIV tests at a clinic five times. The tests, of course, always came back negative. (Campbell 190)
As someone who has treated and cured her disease, the silliness of it is almost too obvious to her. The trick is getting hypochondriacs psychologically treated so they can realize just how nonexistent their diseases and symptoms really are.
There are many interesting facts about hypochondria that very few people know. This disease, as mentioned before is mostly psychological. Therefore, even if there is a medication that treats the disease, it must be accompanied by therapy for the disease to be cured. That is why trips to the doctor don’t do hypochondriacs all that much good, if any. Benedict Carey in an article in Health magazine, writes, “While a visit to the doctor reassures the merely anxious and even the temporarily obsessed, for the hypochondriac it provides only the short-lived comfort that a cocktail brings to an alcoholic” (85). Hypochondriacs rarely believe their physicians when they tell them that there’s nothing wrong with them: “When they hear there’s nothing wrong or that a test is negative, they ask, ‘Are you sure Doc? Are you sure?’” (Carey 85). This is a familiar topic. One fact that may not be so familiar is that hypochondria begins in young adulthood. Faking sick begins at a much younger age, but full-blown hypochondria takes a little more life experience. Since the disease is so much more psychological, the symptoms that show fear of disease come after childhood. Another interesting fact about hypochondria is that it can be a direct result of stress. During exam weeks or the night before a big test, most students can have incredibly high stress levels and can cause themselves to become ill. Some may get headaches and/or stomach aches. Many of times these symptoms can come from lack of sleep, but the combination of that and stress can definitely cause students to worry themselves sick, literally. Knowing that, it is no surprise that stress can trigger hypochondria. Many diseases can be more common among one sex over the other. In this case hypochondria are equal among both males and females.
Many hypochondriacs reported having traumatic experiences in their childhood, or had overprotective parents. Traumatic experiences for children, such as abuse, cause them to think that there’s always something wrong with them. In an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, written by a group of doctors and therapists, states, Hypochondriacal adults recall more childhood trauma than do nonhypochondriacal patients, even after sociodemographic differences are controlled for. They also recall more childhood illness, although they are not currently more medically sick” (Barsky 397). Children are usually not diagnosed as hypochondriacs at that stage in their lives; however, symptoms may start to show. One sign that the child may become a hypochondriac at a later age is when they fake sick as young children relatively often. Normal children tell a fib to stay home once in a while, but there are the few that are more often “sick” then at school, these may be the future hypochondriacs, or simply the future slackers of the world. Most often the symptoms become worse as the child gets older. In the article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the author’s state, “Significantly more hypochondriacal patients reported being sick as children and missing school for health reasons […]” (Barsky 397). The other end of this is when the paranoia does not come from the children, but from the parents. Overprotective parents can cause children to have many more worries than a normal child should ever have by babying them or sheltering them too much from the world. Parents keeping their children out of the sun for fear of sunburn, or out of playing in the snow for fear of frostbite are not doing their children any favors. By keeping children from doing things normal children do, parents are sending them a message of constant worry. In the Harvard mental Health Letter, Aurthur J. Barsky states, “Some students of hypochondriacal attitudes and symptoms believe these conditions develop when parents are overprotective and over responsive to a child’s physical complaints” (7). Children of such parents will most likely be overprotective parents as well, continuing the cycle.
It is imperative for people of all ages to be aware of the causes and symptoms of hypochondria. It is important for young people to recognize the symptoms of the disease so they can keep their compulsions and stress under control. It is important for parents to recognize the symptoms for two reasons: they must be cautious and recognize if their child is faking sick often, and they must watch themselves to insure that they are not sheltering or worrying there children too much. Teachers must be aware of the symptoms to determine which students are actually ill, which are the “fakers” or “slackers,” and which could be diagnosed hypochondriacs. More and more people are developing this disease as years go by. Benedict Carey writes, “[…] the incidence of psychosomatic illness—real if harmless symptoms wrought by an overactive imagination—is apparently at an all time high” (82). It is just as important for doctors to recognize hypochondria as an actual disease so that they know to recommend such patients to a psychiatrist instead of sending them to another doctor, in which case they’ll just keep going from physician to physician, not solving anything. Most doctors can recognize a hypochondriac in their first discussion with the patient. Carey states, “[…] a third of doctors think that more than half the patients they see arrive with psychosomatic symptoms; physically, they’re just fine” (82). Most people are not aware of the differences between fakers and hypochondriacs; they are very hard to distinguish. Recently, doctors have become more aware and have taken the proper actions by recommending the patients to a therapist, and have taken the proper attitudes by treating them as diagnosed patients of an actual illness—it just won’t be the one they came in for.
Hypochondria is a diagnosable disease. Hypochondria is when people misinterpret normal body sensations for symptoms of deadly diseases. They get it into their minds that they have aids, tumors, multiple sclerosis, and many other diseases they do research on. Hypochondriacs don’t just fake sick; they actually believe they have severe illnesses. The fact of the matter, and what hypochondriacs need to learn, is: “that perfectly healthy people get aches and pains all the time” (Franklin 26). Hypochondriacs don’t need physicians, they can be treated with medicine, but it must be accompanied by therapy. The derogatory attitude many people have about the disease has come from years of impatience, frustration, and annoyance. Parents, teachers, doctors, and just average people hate dealing with and being around people who always believe they are sick. More recently, as people have begun to learn more about the disease, they have leaned towards the other extreme. Deborah Franklin, in an article in Health magazine writes, “Pity the hypochondriacs of the world. They’re rejected by doctors who fail to find anything medically amiss, and patronized by psychiatrists, who tell them their ailments are all in their head” (26). There is a happy medium. Hypochondria is a difficult disease to deal with because the people who have it think they need physical help, when they actually need mental help even more. It’s hard to convince a hypochondriac that their real disease isn’t cancer or aids but that it’s hypochondria. The bottom-line; however, is that: “Hypochondriacs—those self-centered complainers who pester physicians with imaginary ailments—really are ill, researchers report” (Curing Hypochondria 37). This disease cannot be ignored, or it will spread, just as any contagious disease would. People need to recognize hypochondria for what it is, a diagnosable disease that needs to be cured, and only people’s awareness and understanding can do that.
Barsky, Aurthur J., Carol Wood. “Hypochondriasis and Childhood Trauma.” Harvard Mental Health Letter (January 1995): 7.
Barsky, Aurthur J., M.D., Carol Wood, M.D., Maria C. Barnette, B.A., and Paul D. Cleary, Ph.D. “Histories of Childhood Trauma in Adult Hypochondrial Patients.” American Journal of Psychiatry 151:3 (March 1994): 397-401.
Campbell, Sarah, Mary Ann Marshal. “I Convinced Myself I Was Dying.” Cosmopolitan (October 2001): 190-192.
Cantor, Carla, Brian A. Fallon, M.D. Phantom Illness. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
Carey, Benedict. “The Mind of a Hypochondriac: Did you ever suspect your headache was really a brain tumor?” Health (October 1996): 82-86.
“Curing Hypochondria.” Futurist (January/February 1997): 37.
Franklin, Deborah, Laura Fraser. “How To Cure Hypochondria.” Health (October 1993): 26-28.
Goodman, M.D., Berney. When the Body Speaks its Mind. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994.
McKay, Dean, Fugen Neziroglu. “Illness Fixation Responds to Modified OCD Treatment.” Psychology Letter (April 1995): 1-3.
Starcevic, Vladan. “Relationship Between Hpochondriasis and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder: Close Relatives Separated by Nosological Schemes?” American Journal of Psychotherapy (July 1990): 340-348.