What happens when someone believes they are dying, even though they're healthy? In this lesson, we will look at hypochondriasis, including what it is, what causes it, and how it is treated.
Charlie thinks he might have a brain tumor. He had a headache yesterday, and it seemed really bad. Even when he took aspirin, the headache didn't go away. He's convinced that he has a brain tumor and is dying. Meanwhile, Charlie's wife is not buying it. Last week, Charlie slept on his arm. When the pins and needles of the arm falling asleep started, Charlie was convinced that he was permanently paralyzed. A pimple on his shoulder last month convinced him that he would have to have his arm amputated due to an infection.
Charlie might be suffering from hypochondriasis, a psychological disorder that involves having an overwhelming and irrational fear of having a serious illness. Small things, like a headache or a pimple, can cause great anxiety in people suffering from hypochondriasis. Those people are called hypochondriacs.
So, you are a psychologist, and Charlie's wife drags him in to see you. She's convinced that his problems are all in his head and wants you to help her straighten him out. You talk to Charlie and think that he might be a hypochondriac. In order to diagnose him, you go down a list of symptoms to make sure that he really does have hypochondriasis.
- An overwhelming fear that normal physical issues signal a serious disease. When Charlie has a headache, he becomes convinced that he has a brain tumor. This is a good example of how a normal physical issue, like a headache, could spur fear of a serious disease, like cancer.
- The fear stays even in the face of medical evidence to the contrary. When the doctor examined Charlie's pimple last month, he reassured Charlie that it was just a harmless pimple, not the serious infection requiring the amputation that Charlie feared. Despite the doctor's examination, though, Charlie was still terrified that the infection would spread and his arm would have to be removed.
- The fear cannot be explained by another mental disorder. The fear, for example, isn't part of a delusional disorder, and it's not specific to appearance, like in body dysmorphic disorder. It also can't be explained by an anxiety or mood disorder. There's no evidence that Charlie has another psychological disorder, so he meets this criterion.
- The patient has had the problem for at least six months. Charlie's wife says he's been this way as long as she's known him, which is for many years.
Charlie meets all the criteria for hypochondriasis, so you can give him that diagnosis.
Causes and Treatment
What could cause a person to become a hypochondriac? No one knows for sure what the cause is, but there are some factors that might contribute to it. For example, many hypochondriacs either had a serious illness as children or had a sibling that had a serious illness. Perhaps because they witnessed the attention that came with being sick, they became hypochondriacs as adolescents or adults.
Other psychological factors that increase the chance of developing hypochondriasis include a history of physical or sexual abuse and the inability to express emotions. People with hypochondriasis may also have a belief that they deserve to be sick because of something they have done.
In addition to psychological factors, there is a theory that hypochondriasis could be caused by oversensitivity to stimuli. In this way, hypochondriacs actually experience pain and other physical symptoms to a much higher degree than normal people. This theory is still relatively new, and there isn't much evidence for it yet.
Whatever the cause, there are a couple of treatments that are used for hypochondriacs. The main treatment is talk therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a specific type of talk therapy where the focus is on changing the thought patterns and behaviors of the patient. In addition to therapy, some antidepressant drugs seem to offer relief to hypochondriac patients.
Hypochondriasis is a mental disorder that involves an excessive and irrational fear of having a serious illness. Patients with hypochondriasis often believe that simple physical symptoms are actually a sign of a serious or life-threatening illness. Psychologists aren't sure what the cause of hypochondriasis is, though there are theories involving both psychological and biological factors. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most common treatment, though sometimes antidepressant drugs are also used.
After this lesson, you'll have the ability to:
- Describe how hypochondriasis presents in a person
- List the criteria that must be met in order to diagnose a person with hypochondriasis
- Summarize the theories on what causes hypochondriasis
- Explain what treatment options are available for hypochondriasis