Hypochondria is abnormal anxiety over one’s health. Often characterized by maladaptive and disruptive ruminations over contracting a serious disease, such as cancer. In hypochondria paranoid ideations are focused on personal health. Unfortunately, in many instances, doctors fail to find the cause of symptoms experienced by the sufferer. In psychology we refer to these illnesses as psychosomatic.
If we are prone to worry, symptoms of illness provide great fodder to endlessly entertain in our chaotic ruminations of devastating possibilities. Almost any physical symptom can be traced to a terminal illness with a few quick stokes of the keyboard, google confirms our worries, we are going to die. However, most maladies, if they even exist, have mundane explanations, and can be attributed to the normal aches and pains of mortal existence.
Perhaps, hypochondriacs are avoiding the personal responsibility of healthy behaviors such as eating right, exercise, and appropriate sleep patterns. It is easier to project blame on a serious disease, sweep away the guilt of failed responsibility, and sulk as a victim of circumstance. T. Franklin Murphy wrote “a victim consciousness defaults to defensive responses that dodge responsibility” (2019).
No matter what the cause, hypochondria can severely disrupt life. Erich Fromm may noted that hypochondriac may be “so absorbed in the processes of his own digestion that he goes to the grave before he has begin to live…” (2013, Kindle location 3,064).
Hypochondria is persistent, unfounded fears about having a serious disease or illness. Hypochondria is often considered a neurosis in reaction to external stresses.
Symptoms of Hypochondria
Symptoms of hypochondria (illness anxiety disorder) center around preoccupation with thoughts of being seriously ill, interpreting normal body sensations or minor aches, pains or marks and rashes as indications of a life threatening disease.
Signs and symptoms of hypochondria may include:
- Preoccupied with having or contracting a serious disease
- Worrying over serious implications of minor symptoms or body sensations
- Panicking over slight changes in health
- Doubting physician and medical tests indicating a normal quick passing illness
- Worrying excessively about developing a specific medical condition
- Excessive distress over possible illnesses that the fear disrupts normal functioning
- Repeatedly and compulsively checking your body for signs of illness or disease
- Frequently making medical appointments for reassurance — or, conversely, avoiding medical care because of fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness
- Frequently searching the internet for serious causes responsible for individual experience of minor symptoms
Causes of Hypochondria
Historical literature of hypochondria isn’t kind to those suffering from this anxiety disorder. Generally, physicians have seen Hypochondria as a neurosis. Early theorists such as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler have significantly contributed to our current perceptions of hypochondria.
However, one should not associate hypochondria with failure, or avoidance of difficulties. Some notable figures in history have exhibited signs of suffering from hypochondria. Significant figures such as Charles Darwin, Samuel Johnson and Carl Gustav Jung suffered from a large variety of illnesses to the extent that one could wager that they were hypochondriacs and their overabundance of physical disturbances were caused by psychological processes rather than organic disease.
While science has not identified an exact cause for hypochondria, research has discovered several reoccurring themes pointing to possible contributing factors. Some of these themes focus on hypochondria as a defense mechanism, others as a neurosis in response to trauma, others as a learned behavioral response from family and close others. Many researchers believe there is an association between excessive sensitivity to bodily sensations and Hypochondria.. Sigmund Freud saw hypochondria as a neurosis, relieving inner conflict through cathexis of energy at a new object of a phantom serious disease (Nissen, 2017).
Freud explains, “hypochondria, like organic disease, manifests itself in distressing and painful bodily sensations…” Freud continues to say that “the hypochondriac withdraws both interest and libido…from the objects of the external world and concentrates both of them upon the organ that is engaging his attention” (1914).
Hypochondria is Self Sabotaging
Hypochondria doesn’t make logical sense because it is self-sabotaging. C.R.R. Snyder wrote, “a growing literature suggests that people use all types of self-handicaps, including procrastination and lack of effort, as well as psychological symptoms such as hypochondriasis (reporting of physical complaints) and anxiety” (2003). George Valliant listed hypochondria as an immature defense. Accordingly, Valliant explains that “sometimes hypochondriasis can be a means of obtaining much-needed care…a plea that attention must be paid” (2012, location 2,366). Basically, the hypochondriac learned that illness effectively commandeers attention from others, weakly filling some belonging needs.
Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward in their classic book on transactional analysis wrote that “a hypochondriac usually manipulates others from the position of being helpless and weak. His or her partner is likely to react by “coming on” as a rescuer or perhaps persecutor or both and may feel victimized in the process (1996, location 956). Valliant adds that “hypochondriasis binds others to the user. Often this is achieved by evoking guilt in the caretaker, and always someone else ends up taking responsibility for the hypochondriac’s anger” (2012, location 2,377).
Alfred Adler believed that hypochondriacal complexes served as excuses for not fulfilling life’s goals. Instead of accepting responsibility, the hypochondriac could place blame on the illness (2011). We naturally learn from experience. When we encounter serious disease, whether through personal contraction, or through intimate observation of the suffering of someone close to us, we integrate these experiences into our interpretations of felt sensations, because we know how devastating they can be.
We may also over estimate the probabilities of contracting serious diseases when we have one or more collisions with them.
Heightened sensitivity leads to an “affective realism” condition, where heightened feelings experienced from minor biological symptoms often lead to serious personal interpretations of causes.
Lack of Sensory Experience
In contrast, those lacking somatic intelligence, such as in alexithymia, or severe sensory depravations may never experience the sensations, and therefore, have no need to interpret the meaning of the experience.
Experiencing somatic sensations is adaptive, allowing for reactive responses to cure illness. Comparatively, a disconnection from these sensations is as problematic as over-identification with sensations. Its important to realize, that we all fall some where on this continuum.
Richard J. Davidson, PhD, research professor of Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin- Madison wrote “being acutely self-aware is a road to hypochondria and panic attacks, as well as to paralysis in your emotional life: If you are constantly besieged by messages about your state of mind and heart…it can be tough to get on with life” (2012).
Hypochondria usually begins in early or middle adulthood and may get worse with age. This correlates well with much theoretical thought suggesting adolescents and early adulthood is a period of heightened anxiety as individuals learn new social roles as they develop.
Risk factors that may lead to hypochondria may include:
- A major traumatic event; or a period of heightened stresses
- A momentary threat of a serious illness that turns out not to be false (a positive reading for a disease that proves false with follow-up tests)
- Traumatic history of physical or emotional abuse
- A serious childhood illness or a parent with a serious illness
- Personality traits, such as habitual worrying
- Excessive exposure to incidents of serious disease
Hypochondria currently has no empirically proven treatment. Many therapies, like cognitive behavior therapy, have helped patients manage the symptoms so they don’t overly disrupt their lives.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
We must be careful when diagnosing a patient or person with hypochondria, for they may be correcting responding to an illness that is in need of medical intervention. Sometimes the best response is simply empathy for their suffering.
Adler, Alfred (1919/2011). The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology. Martino Fine Books.
Davidson, Richard J. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them. Avery; 1st edition.
Freud, Sigmund (1914) On Narcissism: An Introduction.
Fromm, Erich (1955/2013). The Sane Society. Open Road Media.
James, Muriel; Jongeward, Dorothy (1996). Born To Win: Transactional Analysis With Gestalt Experiments. Da Capo Lifelong Books; 25th Anniversary ed. edition.
Murphy. T. Franklin (2019). Victim Mentality. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-23-2019. Accessed 9-29-2022
Nissen, B. (2017). Hypochondria as an actual neurosis. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis,EarlyView.
Snyder, C.R.R. (2003). Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There.
Vaillant, G. E. (1977/2012). Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press.