Suffering minor aches and pains is a normal part of being human. Our bodies constantly exhibit mild signs of discomfort, and usually we ignore these as being what they are—nothing serious. But what if every tiny ache, every twinge of pain, and every harmless ailment was, in your eyes, the sign of a terminal illness? That’s the kind of mental torment sufferers of health anxiety, or hypochondria, have to deal with on a permanent basis.
Hypochondriacs are constantly afraid that they may have a terrible disease and become obsessed with checking their bodies for symptoms. Even the most innocuous symptoms can, to a health anxiety sufferer, lead to a cycle of obsessive behavior, driving them insane with worry. To a sufferer, a cough is sure to be lung cancer, a headache is a brain tumor, and stomach pains most certainly are proof of an ulcer.
According to some statistics, six percent of patients who visit doctors have health anxiety and not only do they cause themselves undue distress, they also take up unnecessary amounts of doctors’ time and medical resources. The problem has gotten worse since medical information has become readily available on the Internet. Hypochondriacs are now able to find obscure diseases that seem to fit their symptoms, and they convince themselves that they are one of the rare sufferers.
It’s important to note that hypochondriacs do not make up their symptoms. But while the symptoms may be real, their exaggerated self-diagnosis is often the problem.
The condition has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, a form of anxiety that makes people obsess about the tiniest things and exhibit bizarre behavior as a result, like turning light switches on and off times before they leave the room. The same kind of obsessive behavior is thought to be at the root of health anxiety.
One of the main problems doctors have in treating hypochondriacs is that they often don’t trust doctors’ advice and, even when constantly assured that they are not sick, will still be doubtful. Doctors usually refer health anxiety cases to behavioral therapists who can better help patients come to terms with their condition.