Hypochondria (Health Anxiety)

The California OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center, located in North Orange County, California, offers Intensive Out-Patient, online therapy (teletherapy), and individual treatment for Hypochondria, also known as Health Anxiety, at its Fullerton offices.

Health Anxiety (Hypochondria) can lead people to take extreme measures to avoid getting sick
2019: Excessive response to health concerns.
2020: Responsible citizen

What is Hypochondria?

Hypochondria is an over-attention and narrowed focus on thoughts and fears about health, bodily functions, and/or treatment of current or potential health issues. These feared thoughts join a tireless effort to alleviate anxiety about the fear or regain certainty about one’s health. Therefore, given its similarity to the obsessive and compulsive patterns in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Hypochondria can be thought of as “Health OCD.”

Hypochondria sufferers are well aware that the focus on their health can fluctuate from a simple preoccupation, to a moderate mental or emotional nagging, to an all-consuming barrage of rumination, doctor appointments, and bodily checking. Sufferers may hyper-focus on the existence of or changes in bodily sensations, changes in bodily function, sounds related to movement, new or changing bumps or marks on one’s body, or alterations of energy level, sleep, or appetite, just to name a few. Truth be told, anything related to one’s health, no matter how far-fetched, can become the subject of obsession.

Once a sufferer becomes aware of a change, or blemish, or a sensation, they may experience a thought like “should it be like that” or “what if something’s wrong?” Unfortunately, the imagination can run wild with speculation. What’s worse is that the effects of anxiety can mask as physical illnesses and exacerbate per-existing medical issues.

Hypochondria obsessions include:

  • What if I have cancer
  • What if my cough is actually the start of lung cancer
  • What if this develops into something worse
  • My dad has diabetes, so I’ll probably develop it too.
  • What if my doctor missed my symptoms or didn’t do the right tests
  • What if my doctor misinterpreted my test results
  • I can’t stop thinking about HIV/ AIDS

Hypochondria compulsions include:

  • Repeated inspection of one’s body for signs of illness
  • Researching symptoms and signs of particular diseases
  • Avoiding people assumed to have a particular illness
  • Asking friends and family if what you’re experiencing is “normal”
  • Visiting doctors, or several doctors, about the same issue
  • Frequent doctor appointments
  • Rumination about potential causes of current or potential health issues
Woman getting a chiropractic exam. Some with health anxiety will begin seeking alternative or Eastern medicine to help real or perceived symptoms.
Going to multiple doctors, even seeking out alternative medicine, can be part of the compulsive cycle for someone with Health Anxiety.

Health Anxiety in the Age of COVID-19

How concerned should we be about our health? Not everyone with a health anxiety is a hypochondriac. A common internet-based meme joke going around the internet around the time of COVID-19 drew a comedic line between between what OCD therapists were commonly telling their clients (“Therapist: Stop washing your hands. Your fears are completely irrational”) and what authorities and governments were saying (“Government: Was your hands or your dad will die!”).

This difference is at the core of Health Anxiety: How much health concern is normal, and how much is excessive?

A general rule of thumb I draw for my clients is whether their symptoms are new, if they have had them reviewed by a qualified professional, whether their symptoms are limiting their functioning, or whether they are getting worse. If they are new, never been checked out, limiting their functioning, or getting worse, it’s advisable to see a doctor. However, if the symptoms have been experienced before, are not significantly impeding functioning, are stable over time, and a doctor has previously said “don’t worry about,” then they should do nothing.

Given the age of COVID-19, we also consider whether we can make a reasonable argument about whether we’ve been exposed to an illness we fear we have, and whether our actions go above and beyond what medical professionals suggest.

Of course, we all want to be healthy, but when the obsession is overpowering thoughts, the anxiety is unbearable, and compulsive attempts to ensure health take more energy and urgency than the average person, it is possible that the typical desire for health has graduated to Hypochondria.

Hypochondria Treatment

The OCD Cycle
Obsession: My leg hurts. What if I’m developing bone cancer?
Compulsion: Seeing doctors, reading WebMD, and repeatedly touching one’s leg.

Hypochondria is treated with a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and mindfulness training. Above all, this treatment method aims to help the sufferer develop a more rational and balanced understanding of their thought pattern and issues relevant to their health concerns, as well as form more adaptive and sustainable responses to handling their fears.

As appropriate, treatment may include facing these fears in gradual steps through Exposure and Response Prevention exercises. This approach is intended to help the client tolerate the anxiety accompanying the feared thoughts while reinforcing a reasonable relationship with the thought and fears. Through repeated exposure exercises, we expect an overall reduced anxious response. Furthermore, the client develops greater confidence in thinking about feared health-related thoughts and experiencing sensations and changes in the body without becoming unreasonably distressed.

If you have more questions about Hypochondria, or would like to schedule an appointment, please contact me.

The California OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center offers specialized therapy for Hypochondria in its Fullerton offices. In addition to serving North Orange County, Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire, CalOCD offers online therapy, group therapy, and Intensive Out-Patient treatment.


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