Hypochondria: What is illness anxiety disorder?

Everyone worries about their health at times, but for some people, fears of being ill are so strong, even when they are in good health, that they find it hard to cope with their everyday life.

Someone who lives in fear of having a serious illness, despite medical tests never finding anything wrong, may have somatic symptom disorder, also known as illness anxiety disorder. The condition has also been known by other names, including hypochondria, or hypochondriasis.

Fast facts on hypochondria:

The main symptom of hypochondria is excessive worrying about health.

Causes may vary, and could be related to other legitimate health conditions.

For most people, it is a temporary experience.

The term as defined by the DSM-5 manual is somatic symptom disorder.

What is hypochondria?

man complaining to a doctor
The most common symptom of hypochondria is excessive worrying about health.

A study published in JAMA defines somatic symptom disorder as “a persistent fear or belief that one has a serious, undiagnosed medical illness.”

The authors note that it affects up to 5 percent of medical outpatients. In short, the disorder is a mental health condition where a person worries excessively that they are sick, to the point where the anxiety itself is debilitating. Worrying about health becomes an illness.

Somatic symptom disorder is a chronic condition.

How severe it is can depend on age, a person’s tendency to worry, and how much stress they are facing.

depressed man looking at his phone
Having a related psychological disorder, such as OCD or depression, increases the risk of somatic symptom disorder.

The exact causes are not known, but certain factors are probably involved:

Belief – a misunderstanding of physical sensations, linked with a misunderstanding of how the body works.

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