Hypochondria or hypochondriasis, also known as “health phobia,” is the chronic and extreme fear that you have a serious illness despite appropriate medical evaluation. Many people with hypochondria feel that they have a psychological problem, but they just can’t help but think that this time, they may be truly ill. If your doctor reassures you time and again that you’re healthy, and yet you still look up gruesome cancers on the Internet for hours each day, then you may be a hypochondriac. Hypochondria can disrupt your lifestyle, and lead to extreme anxiety and depression, so how do you get rid of it?
Symptoms of Hypochondria
Oftentimes, hypochondria is based on a real illness, but the hypochondriac misinterprets the illness and attributes it to an imagined disease; for instance, a cough may be interpreted as tuberculosis or lung cancer, or a mild skin sore is thought to be herpes or skin cancer. You’re probably suffering from hypochondria if you have thoughts like these for at least six months. Common symptoms of hypochondria include:
- Excessive fear of being ill
- Interpretation of mild symptoms as serious illnesses
- Desire to repeat medical exams and consultations
- Frequently switching doctors
- Obsessive health research
- Distrust of good medical exams
- Frustration with medical care
- Obsessive checking your body for lumps or sores
- Frequent checking blood pressure or pulse
- Thinking you have a disease after hearing or reading about it
- Strained social relationships
Consult a psychologist if you have these symptoms. It could be hard to think that you have a psychological problem when you’re a hypochondriac, because of your strong belief that you are truly ill. Hypochondria though, can worsen over time and severely damage your relationships with other people, so give it the benefit of the doubt and set at least one appointment with a psychologist.
Tips for Overcoming Hypochondria
It’s possible to overcome hypochondria even without medical treatment. All you have to do is to accept the fact that you are dealing with a psychological disorder, and that you need to change your outlook on life. The following tips can help you overcome hypochondria.
- Believe in your doctor: Yes, you’ve done tons of research on the Internet; you’ve probably bought and read piles of books on cancers and other serious diseases. Keep in mind though, that your doctor still knows medicine better than you do. His expertise on this area is gained from long years of tough education and practice.
Get a second opinion, if you must, but if two doctors say virtually the same thing to you, then accept the unacceptable. Try their recommended medications for your stomach pain; maybe they’ll work fine. Give your doctor due credit if you get cured because of his instructions. You will learn to trust doctors more once you give more weight to their opinion and recognize their ability to heal their patients.
- Don’t hold back your emotions: Sometimes, hypochondria is just a manifestation of a deeper, underlying tendency to repress your emotions and control things in your life. If you recently lost someone dear to you, take the time to mourn properly. Be proactive and start asserting yourself at work or in school so that you’ll feel a greater sense of self-worth. Always try to see the brighter side of things so the world doesn’t look so bleak and dangerous. Once you feel free to say what you really want to say, and do what you really want to do, your obsessiveness to unnecessary details, like your health condition every 10 minutes, will melt away.
- Become a new person: The best way to redefine yourself is to start with your sense of style. Go shopping for new clothes that you never had the guts to wear before. Wear a new cologne or a new pair of shoes. You can also cut your hair, so you’ll see a you in the mirror. You’ll find that changing yourself physically can do a lot in altering your thoughts and behaviors.
- Be more active: Stress hormones in the body accumulate when all you do each day is work, and then worry about work at home. If this doesn’t lead you to hypochondria, then it will surely lead you to depression, or both. Reduce stress by exercising more and staying active. Swimming, basketball, football, tennis, and other physically challenging sports are best. You’ll feel a lot better once you’ve sweat that stress out.
- Go out more: Gathering information on diseases every day in front of your computer screen will only make you feel worse. Instead of confining yourself to your room, go out and discover the world. Go for weekend picnics in the park with friends or family, or take your significant other out for a movie date. It’s also a great idea to have a vacation somewhere peaceful and beautiful. See the beauty of the outdoors, and you’ll eventually realize that the world is so much more than diseases preying on people.
- Don’t be a cyberchondriac: People use online medical sites so much, that the term “cyberchondria” is now part of the lexicon. It refers to the behavior of people who use the Internet to gather information on health or healthcare. In the old days, people didn’t know they were ill until a real doctor told them so. Today, however, it’s so easy to search for symptoms on the Web, and then your common headache becomes a brain tumor in just a few clicks.
The best way to stop being a cyberchondriac and a hypochondriac is to stop using the Internet for a while or restrict your usage. Don’t go online unless your work calls for it, or if you need to contact other people through it that you can’t reach by phone. You can also restrict yourself to email, entertainment, and news websites when you surf. As much as possible, stay off medical websites until your anxiety is over, or you’ve had a proper diagnosis by a real doctor.
- Keep a journal: Write down all your alarming thoughts about illnesses in a journal. Include descriptions of situations when these thoughts popped into your head. Wait for some time until your anxiety abates or disappears, and then read your journal again. Now, consider if those thoughts are logical or if they are exaggerated. Finally, write a more realistic alternative thought for each negative thought, and try to remember those realistic thoughts instead of the negative ones.
Medical Treatment for Hypochondria
In many cases, hypochondria is so deeply ingrained in your mind that simple changes in your daily life just aren’t enough to get rid of the fears. In fact, the condition can last for years and worsen if not treated. The following are medical treatments for hypochondria.
- Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is the best treatment for hypochondria. It involves talk sessions with a psychologist where you learn about the causes of your fears, so you can cope better with them. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps you identify and deal with false beliefs that drive your health anxiety. You will also learn how to reduce or stop behaviors associated with hypochondria, such as constantly checking your body for problems, also known as “body vigilance.” The psychologist may also recommend exposure therapy, which involves directly confronting your fears in a safe environment to learn how to cope with uncomfortable sensations.
- Medications: Research shows that antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) may help relieve symptoms of hypochondria. Antidepressants are categorized by how they affect the biochemicals in your brain that affect your mood. Your doctor will perform various tests to determine what’s the best class of antidepressants for you. Commonly used antidepressants for hypochondria and other types of depression include:
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): SSRIs are the first choices for treatment of mood disorders and somatic problems because their side effects are more tolerable than other types of antidepressants. SSRIs include escitalopram, citalopram, sertraline, paroxetine, and fluoxetine.
- Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs): TCAs have been around longer than SSRIs, but because their side effects are more severe, they are often not prescribed until you’ve tried SSRIs without any improvement.
- Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs): MAOIs are often a last resort because they can have serious side effects. They also require strict dietary restrictions since they can cause potentially fatal interactions with food.
- Precautions when taking antidepressants: All antidepressants have side effects, some mild, others debilitating, although these could lessen or go away within several weeks of treatment. It’s possible for symptoms to increase during the first few weeks of treatment, but do not stop taking the medications without consulting your doctor first. Also, if you’re breast-feeding, some antidepressants may pose health risks to your unborn child, so talk to your doctor if it’s safe to continue taking the medications.
Don’t let yourself be at the mercy of your fears because your work, personal relationships, and other aspects of your life will soon suffer. The effects of hypochondria on your life can be as bad as any serious illness out there. The illness you’re looking for may be in your mind rather than in your body. Confront your fears now, and get rid of your hypochondria for good.
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