Hypochondria and Health Anxiety in the 21st Century
Lately, the OCD Center seems to be getting more and more calls from people suffering with Hypochondria, also known as Health Anxiety. Many in the public, as well as many physicians, don’t take Hypochondria very seriously. Their attitude is often that this is not a “real” problem, and that people with Health Anxiety are simply being neurotic or seeking attention. Numerous physicians I have spoken to have complained that patients with Hypochondria use a dramatically disproportionate share of doctors’ limited time.
My experience treating many clients with Health Anxiety over the years is that individuals with these concerns are suffering greatly. To put it simply, imagine believing, on a daily basis, that you are dying of a horrible illness or disease.
Why are we seeing such a marked increase in calls from people seeking help for Hypochondria? I posit that the surge in Hypochondria is a function of two main factors:
- Media Overload – We are inundated daily with media reports about diseases. When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 60’s and 70’s, my family had access to a total of eight television channels, all of which went off the air every day around midnight. And this was in Chicago, not some rural outback. Today we have literally hundreds of broadcast and cable channels, all of which run 24 hours a day. Amongst those are numerous cable news channels. Simply put, we have way more information than was available a mere thirty years ago.
- The Internet and Cyberchondria – In addition to the massive increase in broadcast and cable media outlets, the past fifteen years has seen an explosion in usage of the internet. This means more and faster exposure to news about illnesses and diseases. While this wonderful technology certainly has its benefits in terms of disseminating health information, there is also is a dark side that is sometimes called Cyberchondria. Virtually every client we have treated with Hypochondria over the past ten years reports using the internet to search for information regarding illnesses. And by search, I mean for hours and hours a day. Every day. The problem with this is two-fold. First, their searching is essentially a compulsion that reinforces the idea that they are desperately ill. Rather than providing the reassurance that they are not ill, their searching actually results in an increase in their concerns about illness. Second, much of the information they find on the web is of dubious value. Anybody can post anything on the internet, and there is no shortage of health information that is flat out wrong.
Since it highly unlikely that we are going to see a drastic reduction in internet usage or in the number of media outlets available to us, it is imperative that those with health anxiety learn to resist the urge to compulsively use these information sources. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been found by research studies to be the fastest and most effective means of learning how to manage Health Anxiety. For those suffering with Hypochondria, CBT offers concrete solutions for a vexing problem. And as for the naysayers who continue to believe that Hypochondria is a not a “real” problem, consider the possibility that, while the suffering of others may not always make sense to you, that doesn’t mean the suffering in not real.
•Tom Corboy, MFT, is the director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, a private, outpatient clinic specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related conditions. In addition to individual therapy, the center offers six weekly therapy groups, as well as online therapy, telephone therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment. To contact the OCD Center of Los Angeles, click here.
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