If you are someone who is always extremely worried about their health and even considers the minute illness the most serious one, then you might suffer from health anxiety, a disorder that makes people run from doctor to doctor in order to keep themselves safe and healthy. The Pioneer’s Nirnitha Nannapuraju tries to find out more about the disorder and sheds light on its treatment and more.
Imagine yourself enjoying the weekend with your friends, and then suddenly you sneeze. Does it make you constantly worry about your health condition while enjoying your weekend? Then, it might be the symptom of ‘Hypochondria’. In simple terms, “health anxiety”.
According to psychologist Paul M. Salkovskis, health anxiety is characterised by a preoccupation with having or acquiring a serious illness and a high level of anxiety about health. People with health anxiety will engage in excessive health-related behaviours, such as checking their body for signs of illness or avoiding situations or stimuli that are perceived as anxiety-provoking.
Health anxiety can be split into two different disorders. Somatic Symptom Disorder (SSD) and Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD) Criteria for diagnosing SSD include preoccupation with having a serious illness that remains undiagnosed; somatic symptoms that are absent or have a mild presentation; a high degree of anxiety about health and being easily alarmed about health status; excessively checking for symptoms, including seeking multiple opinions; or maladaptive avoidance of medical care that has been present for at least six months. Individuals exhibiting symptoms of IAD are convinced they have a serious, often life-threatening illness that medical providers fail to diagnose after multiple and thorough evaluations.
For a better explanation of the condition, let’s look at an example. Mira, 25, was a lonely child who was raised by her grandmother after her parents’ demise. She was so close to her grandmother that she used to sleep listening to her grandmother’s tales. Even in her teens, Mira’s grandmother passed away with typhoid, leaving her disheartened and lonely.
Since then, Mira has become so conscious of her health that she has begun to search and investigate for the mild symptoms of sickness and has visited many doctors to check on her health status. Her visits to the physician used to give her transient relief from anxiety. But gradually, she began to increase the frequency of her physicians’ visits. At first, she used to seek medical attention about three times a month. Later on, her disease started progressing, and thus, her physicians’ visits increased. She mentioned that she went to four physicians in one day. She was then diagnosed with symptoms of somatic symptom disorder.
Several factors may contribute to being hypochondraic
Having family members or others around you experience a serious illness: If we witness someone experiencing pain and suffering, it may lead to us feeling vulnerable and concerned about our health.
Death of a family member or someone close to you: If we are put in a situation where we are made to think about what our own death will be like and the impact our death will have on others, most people will feel somewhat uncomfortable. The death of someone close to us or known to us, whilst often distressing in itself, can increase awareness of our own mortality and lead us to contemplate these issues.
Having experienced a medical problem yourself: Experiencing a medical problem can lead us to be more “tuned in” to our bodily sensations and changes and alert us to our chances of further medical issues or even death.
Negative information from the media or internet: The internet and media today allow us immediate access to a range of interesting health-related stories and information. However, in an effort to “sell” their stories, media outlets must ensure that their shows or stories grab the attention of the public. Health stories in the media or on the internet can therefore focus on rare diseases, incurable health problems, and fatal conditions.
The Pioneer exclusively connected with Dr. P. Swathi, a psychologist and professor from Osmania University, to get much deeper knowledge about ‘Health Anxiety’ and hypochondraics. The doctor said, “People are getting so conscious about their health after the world went upside down during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the kind of diseases people get exposed to these days are also among those reasons to get worried about their health condition.”
Explaining us more in detail, she continued, “Irrespective of their age group, people are easily prone to getting diagnosed with health anxiety. There are various reasons why their anxiety leads to obsession. The disturbances in their personal lives, work lives, and relationships can also be a major factor, which leads them to get anxious about every other situation and, later, will lead to their obsession with being over-hygienic and over-conscious about their health.”
On the contrary, Aliza Virani, a psychologist, says, “Generally, we see a lot of older adults who are experiencing hypochondrasis, but I also feel that younger adults are also experiencing it these days. especially in the previous generation, older adults are more prone to hypochondrasis.”
She continued, “The feeling of hypochondria is triggered a lot by the internal environment, like when you start feeling insecure or lonely and things go out of control, hypochondria might kick in.”
Hypochondriasis is also a neurotic disorder where people suffer from anxiety and feel that they have all the symptoms of a particular disease they come across anywhere. Normal people might just end up taking care of their diet and doing exercise, etc., but people with this particular disorder will always have a checklist in their minds about all the symptoms they read online and tend to look at normal illnesses too in a deeper way.
Solutions and treatment
Psychologists suggest that people suffering from health anxiety should be given a lot of support from their loved ones and try to listen to them, showing them contradictory evidence about what is happening, or they can directly reach out to psychologists or counsellors.
If the situation becomes worse, going through professional therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. Here, the psychologists will understand the root cause of the problem by conducting 2 or 3 sessions and subside the anxiety.
Behavioural therapy is also one of the suggested treatments that people suffering from health anxiety can go through.