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Hypochondriasis: Definition, Causes and Treatment

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  • 0:05 Hypochondriasis
  • 0:59 Diagnosis
  • 2:44 Causes & Treatment
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

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.

Hypochondriasis

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.

Diagnosis

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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