Do you often fear that you have a medical illness? Or that your headaches, insomnia, or rash are signs or symptoms of a greater problem? While excessively worrying you’re becoming ill may be confusing to some, for many who experience hypochondria (now known as illness anxiety disorder), these concerns are real, disruptive, and make it difficult to cope. In this article, we will talk about what this disorder is, the signs, and how to stop being a hypochondriac so you can feel better about your health long-term and enjoy life.
What Is a Hypochondriac?
Most of us experience health anxiety in one form or another, especially given the current COVID climate. If you’re worried about getting ill, you’re not alone. Coronaxiety is an emerging syndrome (oh, it’s real).
But for some, this anxiety turns compulsive and is quite crippling. A hypochondriac or person with illness anxiety disorder experiences excessive worry about developing a serious medical condition despite receiving contrary results.
They pay excessive attention to body sensations and believe minor symptoms are a harbinger of an underlying illness. For example, normal hair loss is misinterpreted as thyroid cancer, or a migraine is a warning sign of a potential brain tumor. From an outside perspective, these fears are irrational, but for someone who has a heightened sense of their body, these fears feel vivid, real, and terrifying.
A cough is a clear sign of pneumonia, and with an added discomfort in the chest, the patient believes they are a likely candidate for a heart attack. Many patients go doctor shopping to find someone who will take their complaints seriously and approve additional testing. When doctors don’t oblige their demands, it creates a vicious cycle of never receiving reassurance and feeling isolated by fear.
10 Signs You’re a Hypochondriac
Do you think you or a loved one is a hypochondriac? With 5 percent of outpatient visits accounting for illness anxiety (source), it’s helpful to learn the signs and symptoms to build awareness and create a deeper understanding of the concerns felt by many.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Becoming obsessed with having or developing a serious health condition
- Worrying about body sensations and believing they are indicative of a serious illness
- Avoiding people, places, and situations for fear of potential health risks
- Becoming easily frightened, stressed, or anxious about your health
- Feeling anxious and fearful despite receiving negative test results
- Frequently checking symptoms on the internet for a possible diagnosis
- Experiencing disruptions to work, relationships, or everyday life due to worrying excessively about having a serious medical condition
- Frequently worrying about a potential genetic risk of developing a medical condition
- Frequently making appointments with doctors or changing doctors to receive tests and find a diagnosis
- Repeatedly checking or monitoring your body for signs of a serious medical condition
5 Dangers of Being a Hypochondriac
Illness anxiety, at its worst, can disrupt an individual’s life and lead to a host of dangers. With an obsessive fear of becoming ill, many check symptoms multiple times a day, receive unnecessary medical checkups, and their interpersonal relationships, work, and mental health suffer.
1. Limited functioning
Being overly attuned to your bodily functions and misinterpreting them as severe conditions can cause avoidance behaviors such as avoiding places, people, and activities for fear of contracting an illness. These behaviors lead to limited functioning and keep the person in a constant fight or flight response.
2. Disruptions to work and relationships
While the anxiety is felt predominately by the person affected by the disorder, if their fear becomes obsessive, it could negatively impact their relationships . The constant desire to speak about their health status may be deemed as selfish, negative, and draining to those around them. Friends and colleagues who are worried about their loved ones can help by learning more about the disorder and encouraging them to seek therapy.
3. Health complications
How ironic is that health anxiety actually causes further complications to your general health? It’s true. Worrying and obsessing over your health causes anxiety attacks, panic attacks and often co-occurs with depression. This persistent fear can also lead to symptoms such as loss of appetite, decreased sex drive, self-consciousness, and a lack of motivation.
4. Medical bills
Those with illness anxiety often have medical bills that are 10 times the national average (source). The need to self-diagnose, receive additional testing, and the struggle to find a trusting doctor creates a large medical allowance, often eating into their savings and generating further financial stress.
5. Avoiding medical attention
Some people with illness anxiety may avoid seeking medical attention for their symptoms because they fear tests might validate their anxiety. This fear is a danger because if there is something wrong, they are forgoing an opportunity to receive potential treatment. To make matters worse, doctors often label hypochondriacs as difficult patients and dismiss their anxiety after finding inconclusive evidence. This controversial view of a psychiatric disorder increases mental health stigma, and patients lose opportunities to receive treatment for their distress and anxiety.
How to Stop Being a Hypochondriac: 10 Tips
1. Question anxious thoughts
Questioning the source of your health anxiety involves a few steps. Build awareness by identifying what symptoms you are experiencing. How does your body feel at this very moment? Maybe your pulse is high. How does that make you feel? Anxious, worried, scared? Having increased awareness of what is happening within you brings you to the present moment and helps you identify the source of your thoughts.
Next, you can begin finding solutions to your anxious thoughts. For example, if you are aware you are magnifying the intensity of your pulse, you can investigate to determine a solution. Is my pulse high because I drank a cup of coffee? Maybe it’s high because I am under stress? Perhaps, if I meditate or practice deep breathing, my pulse will decrease. To stop unwanted thoughts, we need to understand how we think.
2. Be mindful of the present moment
When you obsess over a symptom or spend time worrying about whether you’re potentially ill, your mind is focused on the future rather than living in the present moment. Health anxiety keeps you imprisoned to the thought patterns of what illness you might catch and what symptoms you’re experiencing.
If you adopt a technique that shifts your focus to the present moment, you begin to eliminate the fear your health anxiety needs to grow. Try practicing regular meditation, going for a mindful walk, or cuddling your cats and keeping your attention immersed in the present moment of being. It works and allows you to embrace and live your life rather than fearing your check-out date.
3. Replace health concerns with positive habits
The beauty of the mind is your ability to shift your thinking and adopt a new perspective. Instead of worrying about becoming ill, shift your focus to practice positive habits that benefit your health long-term.
For instance, replace self-diagnosing with practicing yoga, eating healthier, sleeping better, and meditating. Shifting your attention to positive health actions can set off a chain of events that challenge your health anxiety.
The more you focus on staying well, the closer you are to eliminating unwanted internal thoughts of becoming ill. The next time you find yourself checking a mole, lay out your yoga mat or go for a jog.
4. Understand your triggers
Health anxiety creates a cycle of behaviors and thoughts ignited by a range of triggers. Understanding how these cycles work and identifying your triggers helps you eliminate the power of your fears.
A trigger might be reading the latest coronavirus news or experiencing a sore throat yourself. These triggers then shift your focus to your body’s sensations, and before you know it – you’re on Web MD looking for answers and scheduling tests with your doctor. At this point, you’re deep within the cycle while ignoring all the red flags your logical brain might be warning.
When you spot your triggers, revert your attention with a positive action (going to the gym, calling a friend, or cleaning your home) instead of following the cycle. This tactic helps you build increased awareness of your thoughts and puts you in greater control of how you respond.
5. Avoid making self-checking an obsession
Obsessive self-checking is the go-to coping mechanism for hypochondriacs. It provides reassurance and calms the fight or flight sector of your brain – like constantly checking your seat belt during a bumpy flight.
While it’s human nature to be mindful of your symptoms, be careful of allowing your self-checking to become an obsessive daily habit. The moment it reaches the dark side, it fuels your anxiety and causes you to check the internet for answers, which sets the tone for the next tip…
6. Limit medical research
The versatility of the internet and its multi-functioning use can trap anyone in a day of research. It’s great for planning your next trip, learning a new skill (gotta love a good how-to), and so many other delightful reasons, except for diagnosing symptoms. Raise your hand if you’ve checked Web MD for answers? We’ve all been there.
The internet has expertly and sneakily created several ‘health’ websites that trick us into self-diagnosing. This behavior feeds anxiety, and anyone who researches long enough can think they’re dying.
If you’re struggling with limiting your daily use of medical research, try filtering your devices to limit health news and only use reliable sources for information. You can even challenge yourself to a specified time slot to check when you experience a worrisome symptom. This tip is key to learning how to stop being a hypochondriac.
7. Track your concerns
Journaling is a fantastic tool that allows you to put your fears pen to paper and build awareness of your thought patterns. Get creative and construct an approach to reveal the dangers of your catastrophic thinking.
For example, on one side of a piece of paper, write your fears (I’m going to die of colon cancer), and on the other, challenge your fears (I have loose stools because I’m eating too much fiber). In this same journal, keep track of the days and times you find yourself obsessively checking your body or checking the internet for reassurance. Once you see the frequency of your anxious behaviors, you can determine your triggers and patterns to break the cycle.
8. Look at the evidence
When you’re knee-deep in the throes of illness anxiety, take a moment to reflect and investigate. Ask yourself, is there any evidence that supports I have skin cancer, a parasite, or a brain tumor? After looking at your symptoms from a rational approach, you might realize common explanations are more likely.
For instance, if you’re worried about having breast cancer and you’re a woman in your thirties with no family history, look at the facts – perhaps my breasts are sore because of my menstrual cycle. While our bodies are consistently making changes to our environments that even a person without illness anxiety could tune in and be aware of, don’t undermine your logic when you find yourself magnifying your body’s inner workings.
9. Find a doctor who understands you
When doctors see patients who experience health anxiety, they believe there is no harm in providing tests. While testing may seem like a quick solution to alleviate someone’s concerns, it often doesn’t provide relief. People who experience health anxiety don’t feel calm or relaxed when their testing results disprove their fear.
It causes them to return to the physician list and find someone who will provide a diagnosis they are satisfied with or who will follow their demands to retest. A doctor who understands and recognizes your patterns of health anxiety won’t reinforce your concerns and will direct you to healthier coping mechanisms to combat your fears. Find a doctor who understands you, who you can trust, and who helps you to learn how to stop being a hypochondriac.
10. Imagine talking to a friend
A useful trick to help lessen your health anxiety is to imagine you’re helping a friend who came to you with the same concern. By allowing yourself a brief moment to imagine a hypothetical scenario, you’re able to think more clearly with an objective approach to your concern
For instance, would you tell your friend who came to you anxious about a stomach ache that they have colon cancer? Probably not. You would instead listen, guide them to practice breathing, and tell them they will be okay. Try to speak to yourself the same as you would to a friend.
When to Seek Help
If your health anxiety or fears disrupt your daily functioning, consider seeing a therapist to target the distorted thoughts underlying your concerns. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a popular go-to treatment for illness anxiety. It involves building awareness about your body, thoughts and providing exposure therapy to cope with your triggers. With consistent help, you can learn to confront your fears in a safe and controlled setting to remove the power they hold over you.
Illness anxiety is a treatable disorder, and what you’re feeling right now can get better. What tip about how to stop being a hypochondriac did you like best? Whichever you choose to practice, remember that there is no shame in receiving help, talking about your mental health, or experiencing a mental disorder.
Each of these tips is here to guide you to help you cope with any fears or concerns you are experiencing. Remember, your health concerns aren’t permanent, and you can make changes that lead to a happier and peaceful life. We believe in you!