Illness Anxiety Disorder

The Fear Of Having A Serious Disease

Illness anxiety disorder (formerly known as hypochondriasis) is the fear of having or developing a serious illness. Patients experience a misinterpretation of bodily symptoms and have heightened bodily sensations. They are also very anxious about the possibility of having an undiagnosed illness.

They’ll devote excess time and energy to health concerns and obsess over them, despite reassurance on multiple occasions by medical professionals that nothing is wrong with them. They’ll even obsessively research an illness which they think they might have, in order to gather more information that can somehow be connected to their bodily sensations.

Patients may or may not have a medical disorder. If they do happen to have one, it may or may not be related to the development of their illness anxiety disorder. They won’t deny their medical condition, but they’ll remain preoccupied with developing another one or having an illness that may be undiagnosed.

Their beliefs are not of delusional intensity, meaning that even if they are medically reassured, they will not go home believing that a cancer is growing in their pancreas. They’ll just end up going home anxiously worrying about the possibility of acquiring pancreatic cancer. There’s a difference between the two: delusions are fixed false beliefs and the latter is an extreme anxiety disorder regarding the acquirement of an illness.

Patients with illness anxiety disorder may experience extreme distress, impairment and life disruption. Imagine going to work and always worrying about having or developing a serious disorder. Imagine the distraction that this anxious thought process would bring upon your work productivity, communication and state of mind.

The duration of these symptoms must last > 6 months in order to be diagnosed with illness anxiety disorder. It commonly begins in early adulthood and has a chronic waxing and waning pattern, meaning that the symptoms may remit and come back at some point in the future. Prevalence in the general population is about 1-5%.

Treatment is centered on behavioral therapy, reassurance and the encouragement to continue living a normal and stress-free life. Medical appointments with a primary care provider (PCP) are recommended on a monthly basis, in order to maintain a therapeutic alliance with the patient and provide them with reassurance.

If you or someone you know is suffering from illness anxiety disorder, please try to understand where they are coming from. Don’t tell them “you’re crazy” or “you don’t have anything” because it’ll only backfire. Compassion and careful listening often go a long way to helping patients better cope with their mental illness!

Are you Ready? (This is Defeating Stigma Mindfully)


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