Worried You're a Hypochondriac?
Every time I hear about an E. coli outbreak, I worry that I have food poisoning. If I read about cancer, every ache or strain makes me think of tumors. Is this normal, or am I a hypochondriac?
It isn't unusual to dwell on an illness after hearing about it. Medical students have always been prey to this kind of worry -- imagining that they've got every disease they study. Many people misinterpret garden variety aches and pains when they've been focusing on an illness that's been in the news. But there is a big difference between a passing concern about your health and hypochondria. For the record, hypochondria is a real and treatable mental disorder -- but to be diagnosed with this illness, you have to meet some pretty strict criteria. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), here are some of the symptoms associated with hypochondria:
Preoccupation with fear of having a serious illness based on your misinterpretation of physical symptoms.
Continuing preoccupation despite being medically evaluated and being reassured by a physician that you're not sick.
Your preoccupation causes you significant distress and prevents you from functioning normally at home and at work.
Your preoccupation continues for at least six months and can't be explained by any other type of mental illness.
The big difference between worriers and genuine hypochondriacs is that worriers are relieved to learn they're not sick after being checked by a doctor. Hypochondriacs don't believe that the doctor -- or the tests -- are correct and continue to insist that they're seriously ill.
This problem affects about five percent of all adults. Psychiatrists treat hypochondria with cognitive behavioral therapy designed to change the thinking habits that have led to the problem. But hypochondria is a pretty stubborn disorder. A Massachusetts study, which followed 120 people who were treated for hypochondriasis, found that while symptoms of the disorder do improve over time, two-thirds of the patients participating in the study remained preoccupied with a nonexistent illness four to five years after diagnosis.
If you suspect that you're a hypochondriac on the basis of the symptoms listed above, I urge you to get treatment. You could try hypnotherapy or ask your physician to recommend a psychiatrist experienced in dealing with the problem.