While the diagnosis of hypochondria has been split into somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder in the DSM-5, it still often means obsessive worry about sickness and sometimes, medically unexplained symptoms.
As researchers continue to learn what factors are most likely to trigger hypochondria, more individuals may be able to access effective treatment that helps them reduce the stress and, ironically, poor health that may often accompany hypochondria.
Symptoms of somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety can dramatically reduce a person’s quality of life and may also significantly impact friends and family members. Working with a mental health professional can help people identify and build coping mechanisms that reduce symptoms and address any underlying issues that contribute the anxiety and somatic symptoms.
Therapists and counselors treating hypochondria will generally first rule out the possibility of a serious medical condition. Some people with health anxiety avoid medical treatment, and many of the behaviors associated with this avoidance can superficially manifest as hypochondria.
If there are co-occurring physical or mental health issues, such as OCD, depression, diabetes, or cancer, a treatment plan should accommodate these conditions.
Psychotherapy and, in some cases, psychotropic medication can be highly effective at treating hypochondria. Some common types of therapy that have been proven to successfully address the roots of health anxiety include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Hypochondria is often characterized by seemingly irrational beliefs or concerns about a health symptom or condition. CBT helps people identify those beliefs and replace them with more rational and realistic thoughts.
- Bibliotherapy: Because it can help deepen one’s understanding of a condition, bibliotherapy may be a helpful treatment approach for many who experience hypochondria. Literature about overcoming hypochondria or books that help describe and normalize the condition could be used in bibliotherapy for hypochondria.
- Behavioral stress management: This type of therapy may help individuals with hypochondria lower their stress levels and feelings of anxiety about a health condition or symptom. While it may be used to help people who are truly at risk for a medical condition, it could also be promising for those with health anxiety.
- Group therapy: One study points to the effectiveness of group CBT in reducing somatic symptoms that may accompany hypochondria. In addition to being cost-effective, group-style treatment could make it easier for some people to identify irrational health-related thoughts since it allows them to work with others who have similar health concerns.
If you think you could be experiencing hypochondria or a related diagnosis, it may help to first visit your health care provider or a therapist. In addition to the types of therapy listed above, individual or talk therapy can be a helpful first step that allows people with hypochondria to address their health anxiety in a safe, validating space and be referred to medical treatment if physical health is the root concern. Find a therapist in your area.
Although seeing a therapist and/or doctor can be key when addressing hypochondria, individuals with a somatic symptom disorder diagnosis and those with troubling thoughts about disease may find these research-based tips helpful.
- Don’t research symptoms. If you know you’re prone to worrying about health or physical symptoms, it may help to stay offline and avoid searching for potential medical explanations. For example, someone may have a sore throat due to allergies but find out online that their discomfort could also be caused by the unlikely diagnosis of throat cancer.
- Find support. Joining a support group in your area for people with health anxiety could help you connect with others who have similar worries or symptoms. Talking about your concerns with others may help you put health anxiety into perspective.
- Communicate with your doctor. Let your doctor know if you have difficulty letting go of concerns related to your physical health or medical condition. Open communication can help you and your doctor stay on the same page and may also allow your doctor to better understand you and give you any reassurance you need.
While dealing with hypochondria isn’t always a simple matter of banishing distracting or unhelpful thoughts, it is possible to overcome. Whether you are healthy or have a medical condition, professional care can help soothe fears brought on by health anxiety.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for health anxiety: Harriet has always been very careful about her health and does not have a family history of serious medical issues. However, she is preoccupied by the worry that at 36 she is developing arthritis in her hands, due to pain in two of her knuckles. Doctors have assured her she does not have arthritis, but she continues to be consumed by the thought and sees other medical professionals. Her visits are not very helpful, and she begins to wonder whether her symptoms indicate another condition. After a psychiatrist assigns a diagnosis of illness anxiety, Harriet works with a psychotherapist to identify the sources and factors contributing to her anxiety. Though she still feels something is “off” about her health and experiences strange aching in her finger joints, the therapist encourages her to resist the urge to visit more doctors and asks Harriet to instead examine what else is happening in her life during the times when the pain and temptation to visit doctors is strongest. She gradually begins to notice patterns of significant stress–a daunting project at work, a visit from her sister, or her best friend’s wedding–precipitating her pain and many medical visits. As Harriet pays more attention to her general stress and anxiety levels and develops better coping skills and habits with the help of her therapist, her constant worry is eased. She still notices pain from time to time, but it’s far less severe and she does not rush to see a doctor when it happens.
- Brody, J. E. (2018, June 18). A new approach to treating hypochondria. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/18/well/a-new-approach-to-treating-hypochondria.html
- Haupt, A. (2012, July 10). How to cope with hypochondria. Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2012/07/10/how-to-cope-with-hypochondria
- Hedman, E., Axelsson, E., Andersson, E., Lekander, M., & Ljótsson, B. (2016). Exposure-based cognitive–behavioural therapy via the internet and as bibliotherapy for somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder: Randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 209(5), 407-413. Retrieved from http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/209/5/407
- McGregor, B. A., Dolan, E. D., Murphy, K. M., Sannes, T. S., Highland K. B., Albano, D. L., Ward, A. A., & Anna M. Charbonneau, A. M., et al. (2016). Cognitive behavioral stress management for healthy women at risk for breast cancer: A novel application of a proven intervention. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 49(6), 873-884. doi: 10.1007/s12160-015-9726-z
- Taylor, S., Thordarson, D. S., Jang, K. L., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2006). Genetic and environmental origins of health anxiety: A twin study. World Psychiatry, 5(1), 47-50. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472263
- Weck F., Gropalis M., Hiller W. & Bleichhardt G. (2015, September 28). Effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral group therapy for patients with hypochondriasis (health anxiety). Journal of Anxiety Disorder, 30(1). doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.12.012