There's a big difference between everyday health concerns and
signs that you are a hypochondriac. In the former, you might go to the doctor when you're feeling sick, or follow up with a specialist if you have ongoing health concerns. In those instances, you're doing exactly what you should be doing — listening to your body and taking good care of yourself.
But hypochondria is something else entirely. "The medical condition, hypochondriasis ... is a condition where someone misinterprets one or more bodily symptoms and believes they have a serious disease (this is now called 'somatic symptom disorder'); or they are preoccupied with a fear of a disease, now called '
illness anxiety disorder,'" Dr. Tania Elliott, allergist, internist, and chief medical officer at EHE, tells Bustle. "The common factor for both of these conditions is that people have a completely normal physical examination, negative tests, and are provided with reassurance by their doctors, but they still have the fear or physical symptoms in the absence of anything going on physically."
Which is why this is considered
an anxiety disorder, and needs to be treated as such. "Once a medical cause [for the symptoms] is ruled out, they should work with a therapist to help them manage the symptoms," Dr. David Greuner, of NYC Surgical Associates, tells Bustle. "There are a variety of effective treatments including cognitive behavioral therapy," that can help you feel better. Here are a few thoughts and concerns that may mean you have hypochondria, according to experts.
Thinking You Have A Serious Disease, Even When You Don't
When someone has illness anxiety disorder, they're not usually worried about small things like colds or headaches, but instead become anxious thinking they might have something far more serious.
"People can be preoccupied with a diagnosis, and most often it’s a serious illness (thinking they have cancer or HIV) ... or feeling their heart rate or blood pressure isn't functioning improperly," Dr. Elliott says. They often fear the worst, and thus monitor their body for signs of disease.
Feeling Easily Triggered When Someone Talks About Illnesses
When someone has illness anxiety disorder, it's easier for them to
feel "triggered by reading about a disease or illness, or learning that a loved one has become sick," Dr. Elliott says. "All of a sudden they start thinking and believing they have the same condition." Of course, if you notice this pattern in yourself or someone you love, it may be best to speak to a therapist about these worries.
Feeling The Constant Need To Be Seen By A Doctor
Another difference between everyday
health concerns and illness anxiety is the severity. For example, someone with this disorder might think they're sick and "show up at the emergency room or the doctor's office," Dr. Elliott says, while someone with the same symptom could easily ignore it.
As a result, illness anxiety disorder can eat up a lot of your time and cause of a lot of distress, which is why therapy can come in handy. A professional can help you learn coping skills, so you don't have to live in fear.
Believing Normal Bodily Functions Are A Sign Of Something Bad
While most people ignore daily aches and pains — since they know they're nothing to worry about — someone with illness anxiety might read into every little twinge in their body, and become convinced it's a sign of a disease.
"A person with a somatic symptom disorder might worry excessively about minor physical issues,"
Emily Mendez, MS, EdS tells Bustle. "For example, if they are fatigued, they might be convinced that it is because they have cancer. They will have extreme anxiety when experiencing minor symptoms and illnesses."
Worrying Excessively About Your Family's Health History
While it's smart to
take family history into account when thinking about your health — so you know which disease symptoms to look out for as you get older — most of us don't become too hung up on them.
For folks with illness anxiety disorder, however, it's often all they can think about. They often have an "obsession with family history," Dr. Greuner says. "The paranoia that follows their journey for a diagnosis is where the mental illness can become harmful to the individual, as their anxiety surrounding a diagnosis can become crippling."
Worrying, Despite Getting Negative Test Results
If you don't feel well, it's
important to follow up with a doctor until you can figure out what's wrong. But it's important to know the difference between having actual symptoms, and simply worrying.
If someone makes "trips to the doctor and all results are negative, yet they refuse to believe it and get multiple opinions, this is a tell-tale sign," Dr. Greuner says. You know your body, so continue to seek answers if you're feeling sick. If your worries are keeping you up at night, however, it may be
helpful to speak with a therapist.
Wanting To Avoid The Doctor At All Costs
On the flip side, it's not uncommon for hypochondriacs to completely
avoid the doctor. As Dr. Greuner says, "If they defer all doctor appointments even though they repeatedly express their concern of a serious disease, this can also be a red flag for hypochondria as they fear the results could come back exactly what they think it is."
While it's totally understandable to be concerned about test results, those with illness anxiety often feel nervous even after previously being told they're healthy. And yet they keep going back — just to be sure — and feel anxious each time.
Feeling Like Your Doctor Can't Be Trusted
The reason folks with illness anxiety get so many medical tests is not just because they're worried about their health, but also because their anxiety makes it difficult for them to trust and believe their doctors.
"One of the most common signs of hypochondria is the tendency to doubt your doctor’s competency," Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert at
Maple Holistics, tells Bustle. "This often leads to seeking additional opinions until they eventually decide to disregard medical professionals altogether."
When dealing with an illness, it can help to get support from a therapist as you deal with all the worries and ups and downs that can come with it. But this is even more important if you think your worries are based in anxiety. By finding ways to cope and deal with your concerns, you might find that your symptoms eventually go away.
Constantly Wanting To Look Up Symptoms
If you have a headache and want to look up possible causes online, go for it. By learning more about your body, you can effectively become your own health advocate. And that's a good thing.
When someone has illness anxiety, however, these online searches tend to do more harm than good. "They sometimes spend hours at a time, searching the internet for a single disorder which would explain their symptoms,"
Barbara Bergin, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon, tells Bustle. "We can enter a simple, but common complaint or symptom, and pull up pages of disorders and chat rooms in which that symptom is addressed," Dr. Bergin says.
When someone has illness anxiety, it's easy for them to read into every little thing, and assume they're sicker than they actually are — thus adding to their anxiety.
Getting Angry That Nobody Knows What's Wrong
If you truly don't feel well, it's
important to follow up with doctors until you figure out what's wrong. But take it as a sign if each and every test you get comes back negative, and yet you're still super concerned.
People with illness anxiety disorder "have often seen many physicians, and sometimes are very angry over the fact that no one has figured out what is wrong with them," Dr. Bergin says.
And that's because nothing is actually wrong with them. So, if it's been years and no one can figure out what's causing your symptoms, it may be worth it to look into illness anxiety disorder. A therapist can help diagnose you, and get you the support you need.
Keeping A Detailed Record Of Symptoms
Another tipoff that it might be an anxiety disorder? You feel the need to obsessively track your symptoms. It's not uncommon for sufferers to "have long descriptions of their symptoms, and ... extensive journals describing every symptom, the date of onset, along with the evaluation and treatment of these symptoms," Dr. Bergin says.
This isn't the same thing as being organized or keeping track of a disease you have been diagnosed with. The difference here is that there is no physical illness, but instead symptoms and worries that are fueled by anxiety.
If you don't feel well, or have a nagging health concern that won't go away, do follow up with your doctor. They will perform all the necessary tests to figure out what's wrong, and get you the help you need. But if any of the worries and concerns listed above sound familiar, be sure to
reach out to a therapist, too. There are plenty of ways to treat somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder, so you can get back to feeling like yourself again.