This Symptom Could be Serious

By Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.

Fears and phobias of all kinds are common. However, one fear that can be particularly distressing is the fear of serious illness. This fear is often ridiculed rather than understood, and its debilitating aspects are underestimated. As a result, sufferers often suffer alone, without the sympathy or help of friends and family.

The official medical names for this fear are Somatic Symptom Disorder or Illness Anxiety Disorder, conditions previously known as”hypochondriasis.” Hypochondriasis is the preoccupation with fears of having serious illness. Minor symptoms such as aches and pains, sores, coughs, heart palpitations and so on, may trigger panic about having a life-threatening disease. People who suffer from this fear suffer often and intensely because the fear is triggered so easily by sensations in the body. Some people also feel fearful about the bodily well-being of their loved ones; mothers, for example, may obsess about their children’s health or react intensely to symptoms of sickness, always fearing the worst.

People tend to be impatient with hypochondriacs, assuming that they are just trying to get attention or that they are immature and over-reactive. Often, people reprimand the hypochondriac, telling him or her to “get over it already” or “just relax.” However, the hypochondriac cannot use willpower to remove the fear. Like other fears, hypochondriasis is not a rational disorder that can be rationally persuaded to disappear. Rather, it is a deeply rooted, irrational disorder that is determined biologically and subconsciously. The hypochondriac suffers miserably from the fear and would be only to happy to be able to “think” it away; it simply cannot be done.

In order to cope with the constant anxiety generated by this condition, hypochondriacs make frequent visits to doctors. Often they will seek multiple opinions. The doctor’s reassurance about lack of disease may sometimes offer temporary relief, but it may not offer relief at all, as the patient doesn’t necessarily believe (deep down) that the doctor really knows enough. Even if the patient does feel reassured, the fears will return with the next body sensation or symptom. Hypochondriacs, like all other people, do actually get sick at times. Unlike others, they tend to have physical symptoms and reactions that are out of proportion to the seriousness of the actual medical condition. For the hypochondriac, every disease is a deadly disease, therefore the fear, pain and distress that accompanies illness is highly intensified. As annoying as this can be for those who live with him, no one suffers more greatly than the hypochondriac himself. Hypochondriasis can impair occupational and/or social functioning, as the person becomes more and more obsessed with fears. Some sufferers simply stop seeing people altogether, as they go deeper into their inner world of fear, misunderstanding and isolation. Unfortunately, hypochondriasis tends to be a chronic, life-long condition when it is not treated.

Although some young people suffer from hypochondriasis, the more common age of onset is in the 20’s or 30’s and the highest proportion of sufferers are in their 30’s and 40’s. Sometimes traumatic medical experiences can trigger the onset of the symptoms. Both men and women are affected equally and the disorder is more common than many people realize. Some doctors see hypochondriacs in their practice without treating them directly. Instead, they offer plenty of reassurance. This practice alone does not tend to cure the disorder. However, there have been some successful treatment formats utilized by physicians and psychiatrists. If you suffer from constant fear of illness, it is best to talk to your doctor about this condition and ask for a treatment plan or a referral to someone who can offer one. Medication has sometimes alleviated symptoms – a psychiatric consultation may be helpful for this. Bach Flower Therapy may be helpful, particularly in conjunction with psychological treatment (see the Bach Flower Therapy section of this website for further information). Thought Field Therapy and other forms of Energy Psychology can be very helpful with this disorder, sometimes bringing about dramatic and lasting improvement. There are psychological and medical practitioners trained in this treatment format. Many forms of counselling may also be helpful.

It is important for family members to appreciate the seriousness of this disorder. Sufferers do not want to be hypochondriacs. Their misery is intense. They need your support, patience and understanding, not your disapproval or advice. Hypochondriasis is a genuine disorder that requires psychological intervention for its resolution.

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