Hypochondria, also called Hypochondriasis or "Health Anxiety" or "Illness Anxiety", is best described as the obsessive, irrational fear of having a serious medical condition. Hypochondria / Health Anxiety is based on an individual's misinterpretation of symptoms, and exists despite medical reassurance that the individual does not have a disease or illness. Hypochondria / Health Anxiety goes beyond normal concerns with health, and can seriously impact academic and professional functioning, as well as interpersonal relationships.
Symptoms of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety
Symptoms of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety vary widely from person to person. Some examples of common obsessions seen in Hypochondria / Health Anxiety are:
- thinking that a headache is indicative of a brain tumor
- believing that a cough must be sign of lung cancer
- assuming that a minor chest pain is a heart attack
- thinking that a minor sore is a sign of AIDS
Some common examples of compulsions seen in Hypochondria / Health Anxiety include:
- multiple doctor visits, sometimes "doctor-hopping" on the same day
- multiple medical tests, often for the same alleged condition
- repetitive checking of the body for symptoms of an alleged medical condition
- repeatedly avoiding contact with objects or situations for fear of exposure to diseases
- habitual internet searching for information about illnesses and their symptoms ("Cyberchondria")
It is estimated that 4-6% of the population has clinically significant hypochondria. Furthermore, recent research suggests that up to 10% of all visits to primary care physicians may be due to hypochondriacal fears. As demonstrated above, Hypochondria has numerous obsessive-compulsive features that are quite similar to those of OCD. One essential diffence between the two conditions is that those with OCD often fear getting a disease, while those with hypochondria fear already having a disease. Perhaps the most significant similarity linking OCD and Hypochondria is the cyclical process by which the symptoms of both increase. To learn more about this process, click here.
Treatment of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety
Because of these many similarities, the same Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques that are so effective in treating OCD are also employed in the treatment of Hypochondria. In fact, recent research studies at both Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic have found that CBT is the most effective treatment for Hypochondria / Health Anxiety. The primary CBT technique used in treating both OCD and Hypochondria is a type of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy called "Exposure and Response Prevention" (ERP). Another CBT technique that is extremely valuable is called "Cognitive Restructuring", in which clients learn to challenge the validity of their distorted health-related thoughts.
Additionally, a variant of ERP has been developed that has also been found to be extremely effective for the treatment of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety. This method, sometimes called "imaginal exposure," involves using short stories based on the client's health obsessions. These stories are audiotaped and then used as ERP tools, allowing the client to experience exposure to feared situations that cannot be experienced through traditional ERP (e.g., getting cancer or AIDS). When combined with standard ERP for the above-noted compulsions, and other CBT techniques such as Cognitive Restructuring, this type of imaginal exposure can greatly reduce the frequency and magnitude of intrusive health-related obsessions, as well as the individual's sensitivity to the thoughts and mental images experienced in Hypochondria / Health Anxiety.
One of the most effective CBT developments for the treatment of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. The primary goal of Mindfulness-Based CBT is to learn to non-judgmentally accept uncomfortable psychological experiences. From a mindfulness perspective, much of our psychological distress is the result of trying to control and eliminate the discomfort of unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. In other words, our discomfort is not the problem - our attempt to control and eliminate our discomfort is the problem. For an individual with Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, the ultimate goal of mindfulness is to develop the ability to more willingly experience their uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges, without responding with compulsions, avoidance behaviors, reassurance seeking, and/or mental rituals. To learn more about Mindfulness Based CBT for the treatment of Hypochondria, click here.
Using these tools, clients learn to challenge their hypochondriacal fears, as well as the compulsive and avoidant behaviors they use to cope with their health-related anxiety. If you would like to learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of OCD, Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, and related anxiety-based conditions, click here.
Individual Therapy for the Treatment of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety
The OCD Center of Los Angeles offers individual therapy for the treatment for adults, children, and adolescents with Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, with a strong emphasis on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). We have four therapists on staff, and our offices are open six days a week, including evenings and Saturdays. If you would like to discuss treatment options at the OCD Center of Los Angeles, you can call us at (310) 824-5200, or click here to email us.
Low-Fee Group Therapy For the Treatment of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety
In addition to providing individual Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the OCD Center of Los Angeles also offers five weekly, low-fee therapy / support groups for adults with OCD, Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, and related conditions. Research has shown that group CBT is extremely effective in the treatment of OCD and related conditions, including Hypochondria / Health Anxiety. All groups at the OCD Center of Los Angeles are led by our professional staff therapists, and use the same CBT treatment protocol as our individual therapy program. Please note that all of our groups require an assessment prior to participation, and are open only to adults over the age of 18 with OCD, Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, and related anxiety based conditions. To learn more about our weekly groups for adults, click here.
Telephone and Online Therapy for the Treatment of Hypochondria / Health Anxiety
The OCD Center of Los Angeles also offers webcam based online therapy and telephone therapy to clients suffering with Hypochondria / Health Anxiety. Telephone and online therapy are cost-effective options for clients who have physical and/or psychological limitations that restrict their ability to come to our office, and for those in remote areas who cannot find specialized Hypochondria / Health Anxiety treatment close to their home. Telephone and internet therapy have repeatedly been found to be safe and effective in numerous research studies, and have been legal in California since 1997. If you would like to learn more about our telephone and online therapy program for Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, please click here.
Intensive Hypochondria / Health Anxiety TREATMENT
We also offer intensive Hypochondria / Health Anxiety treatment for adults, adolescents, and children. This program is designed to meet the needs of those for whom standard outpatient Hypochondria treatment is either unavailable or insufficient. Our intensive outpatient program is ideal for clients from other states or countries who cannot find effective Health Anxiety treatment near to their homes, and for those whose symptoms require a more rigorous treatment protocol. To learn more about our intensive outpatient treatment for Hypochondria / Health Anxiety, click here. If you are experiencing any of the above Hypochondria / Health Anxiety symptoms, and would like to discuss treatment options at the OCD Center of Los Angeles, you can call us at (310) 824-5200, or click here to email us.
Please note that the above is not meant to replace a complete and thorough evaluation by a licensed cognitive-behavioral therapist or other qualified mental health professional. Some individuals with Hypochondria may benefit from medication as part of their treatment, and may therefore require a psychiatric evaluation. Likewise, a psychiatric assessment may be necessary to differentiate between Hypochondria and other psychological conditions. If a psychiatric evaluation is indicated, the OCD Center of Los Angeles can refer you to a qualified psychiatrist in our area. Furthermore, it is imperative to make the distinction between Hypochondria and other medical conditions. For this reason, a medical examination may be a necessary part of Hypochondria treatment.