Haunted by hypochondria

We all have the occasional aches, pains and fears about certain physical red flags. From headaches, toothaches to stomach upset or nausea.

By Samineh I. Shaheem

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Published: Sat 18 Jun 2011, 10:31 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:38 AM

Some of us ignore it; others nag about it, while some people seek immediate medical advice. There are however a small percentage of people (2-6 per cent of the population) who constantly exaggerate their minor health symptoms into believing that they have a malignant tumour, cancer or other life-threatening diseases.

These people are thought to have a debilitating state know as hypochondria, which is a psychological condition in which there is a preoccupation with anxieties in relation to their health. They believe that they may be suffering from a serious ailment even in the face of medical reassurance that they are healthy. Whilst many of us have some concern about our condition, full-blown hypochondriacs are so preoccupied with having a serious disease that it affects almost all areas of their life including work, relationships and for some even daily functioning. Heaven forbid you mention you have an illness around them; they will immediately claim to feel the same or even worse!

This serious ailment doesn’t usually appear alone since it is likely to be accompanied by a mood or anxiety disorder. Anxiety and depression result in actual physical symptoms, for instance increased heart rate, which may be perceived by the hypochondriac as a more serious physical illness like heart disease or high blood pressure.

Overreaction to ordinary and minor ailments like a cough, a sore spot, or a stomach-ache is considered to be evidence that the hypochondriac is actually inflicted with a more serious ailment. Visits to physicians happen routinely and often these doctors are labelled uncaring or incompetent as they reassure the hypochondriac that they do not have the illness they think they have.

A smoker hypochondriac woke up one night, convinced that she had developed throat cancer as her throat was beginning to hurt. Most of us would be inclined to believe that a sore throat was probably responsible. However, she had to be rushed to the emergency unit at a hospital as she began to gasp for air and reported she couldn’t breathe. It turned out that she did just have a sore throat. Many years and many visits to cancer specialists have passed and as a result she has quit smoking. Unfortunately her imaginary cancer has now spread from her throat to her stomach.

There are several factors that may trigger hypochondria and some of them are:

u A widespread virus or pandemic

u Death or illness among friends or family members

u Stressful life situations

u Researching medical conditions on the internet and belief that one may have the disease (also known as Cyberchondria)

u Frequently switching doctors

For the hypochondriac, preoccupation with illness may just become a self-fulfilling prophecy and many could actually become physically ill as a result of stressing about it.

Treatments like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are known to be effective in curing hypochondria. Hypochondriacs’ brains are biased towards seeing threat in relation to health issues and CBT can help in restructuring this pessimistic way of thinking. The difficult part is getting a hypochondriac to a psychologist or psychiatrist, as their belief is that they have an actual physical illness that has nothing to do with their psychological state. It is only when a medical practitioner refers the patient to a psychologist that the hypochondriac considers this as an option.

So where does this dread and preoccupation with being ill actually come from? Chalking it up to psychology or psychiatry may not be the only answer. Is our society responsible to some degree? Think about it, there are hundreds of new diseases and syndromes that have surfaced in the past few years alone. Pharmaceutical companies and others in the medical profession do benefit from letting us believe that we may be ill.

Some of these illnesses actually baffle the mind. Did you know that there is a disease called Telephone Stroke that occurs from the restriction of blood flow when holding the telephone between your ear and shoulder?

Easy accessibility to information and being able to look up symptoms over the Internet hasn’t helped either. To the hypochondriac, the Internet is a sea of information feeding their neurosis.

After checking my email for the 10th time today and surfing smoothly through the net, another new illness swims my way; Information Fatigue Syndrome, which is confusion caused by too much information. Sound familiar? I think it is safe to say that its time to unplug.

Samineh I Shaheem is an author, an assistant professor of psychology, currently lecturing in Dubai, as well as a cross-cultural consultant at HRI. She appears on numerous radio programs and conferences and has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and the UAE. Please forward your thoughts to OutOfMindContact@gmail.com

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