What is hypochondria?

Hypochondria is the medical term used to describe a condition in which a patient has an irrational fear of ill-health. This fear very often borders on the phobic and causes a great deal of distress to sufferers and their families.

How will I know if I am suffering from it?

At sometime or other, we have all heard the phrase "Oh, she is a real hypochondriac" to describe someone who is always complaining of aches and pains. Flippant as that remark may be, people who are actually suffering from hypochondria will very often harbour the strongly-held belief that they are going to die at a young age from some dreadful disease, or that they are going to be struck down with some terrible disability. While rationally-minded friends may try to convince them otherwise, the hypochondriac will still firmly hold onto their belief in impending doom.

Are there trigger factors?

Many members of the medical profession believe that true hypochondria is a modern phenomenon. One of the reasons for this is that most people do not come into contact with death as often as their ancestors did and don't have the necessary coping mechanisms to deal with it.

Hypochondria among young people can often by triggered by the sudden death of a friend. This forces the individual to confront their own mortality and they may begin to conjure up images of their own death. Thoughts like this can occupy a great deal of time and can trigger such a state of anxiety that the slightest ache or pain will bring a dreadful sense of foreboding and dread.

For example, a simple headache may convince someone who is suffering from hypochondria that they have a brain tumour; a pain in their stomach will become cancer of the colon; swollen tonsils will give rise to cancer in the throat, etc., etc. - all totally irrational fears to a person who is thinking clearly, but a source of great concern to someone who is suffering from hypochondria.

Is medical help available?

There are no quick-fix solutions for patients who are suffering from hypochondria. Like other forms of neurosis, the fears which have become imbedded in the imagination have to be confronted one by one and this process can be very time consuming. Sometimes referral to a psychologist for specialist assessment and treatment will be necessary.

What can I do to help myself?

If you feel you are suffering from hypochondria, try to confront your fears and try to rationalise them. This may not be effective for the more intense forms of this neurosis. If you feel you cannot cope on your own you should consult with your GP.

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