Illness anxiety disorder (IAS), also called health anxiety, is a term used to describe a person who is excessively worried about a serious illness. Read the article to know its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
Illness anxiety disorder (IAD), otherwise called health anxiety, is overwhelming anxiety about a perceived illness lasting for a period of more than six months. People with IAD often rush to their primary care physician, fearing that they have a serious condition. The doctor's reassurance that it is nothing does nothing to calm their nerves. They then switch doctors because they suspect their physician has missed something major. There are also a few who avoid simple check-ups and investigations due to the fear of being diagnosed with a chronic disease.
The person might not show any physical signs or symptoms, or they believe that even a small symptom is a sign of a serious underlying health condition. The thought that something is wrong with them and the anxiety that accompanies can even disrupt the person's life. It is a chronic condition that can either go away or become intense with age. It usually increases during periods of stress. Psychotherapy and medication might help the person feel better.
IAD was previously referred to as hypochondriasis, but The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that was published by the American Psychiatric Association does not include hypochondriasis or hypochondria as a diagnosis anymore. The term has now been changed to illness anxiety disorder. In this disorder, the person interprets uncomfortable or unusual physical sensations as a sign of some serious medical condition.
A similar condition called somatic symptom disorder focuses on a particular symptom and its disabling capacity, rather than worrying that the symptom is due to a specific illness.
The symptoms of IAS are:
Being paranoid about a specific disease (e.g., cancer), organ (e.g., brain) or system (e.g., digestive system).
Persistently checking/examining the body for alarming signs.
Rushing to the doctor repeatedly in spite of reassurance.
Avoiding hospital visits due to worry that disease will be diagnosed.
Insisting the doctor for a treatment or prescription when neither is necessary.
Either the symptom mentioned is not present, or even if it is, is only mild.
In the case of chronic illness, their concern is out of proportion; that is, they feel sicker than they really are.
Reading medical articles and researching extensively about the perceived condition.
Doctors are not sure what exactly causes health anxiety, but the following factors seem to play a role:
When people do not properly understand their symptoms and diseases, which makes them believe that their body's sensations are due to a serious disease. This makes people go and look for some evidence that proves their suspicion.
A bad experience dealing with a childhood illness. This makes the person scared of any physical sensations as an adult.
If you or a family member is excessively worried about their or your health.
Some of the factors that increase the risk of IAD are:
People who are in their early or middle adulthood.
Older adults are more scared of developing memory problems than anything else.
Serious childhood illness.
A family history of genetic disorders.
History of abuse or assault.
Loss of a loved one.
Excessively searching the net for various illnesses.
IAD usually starts in early adulthood or soon after losing a loved one to the disease.
Their physician suspects IAD when the person's complaints and history do not co-relate to their clinical findings. They are then referred to a mental health specialist, although, more often than not, he/she refuses to consult one. The symptoms may also be reported by a close friend or family member. Other signs to note are visiting multiple doctors without any conclusive findings.
A doctor will diagnose this condition based on the following criteria marked by the American Psychiatric Association:
Obsessed with the thought of having or developing a serious illness.
Exhibiting no or very mild symptoms.
Obsessed about an existing medical condition.
Exhibiting unhealthy and unreasonable behaviors, such as:
Checking self again and again for some disease.
Looking up symptoms and diseases online.
Avoiding diagnosis by refusing to go to a doctor.
Thinking about an illness for at least six months or more.
The hardest part of treating hypochondriasis is to get the patient to believe that their problem is more mental than physical. Since the physical symptoms they feel are very realistic, it is difficult for them to accept that there is no ailment. It is thus important for the doctor to deal with it correctly without brushing off the patient's concerns. This disorder is fairly common, and fortunately, physicians know how to provide assurance in a proper way. The most accepted treatment is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
The person is taught strategies to cope with their anxiety. This includes multiple sessions that are designed to gradually reduce their anxiety by exposing them to their fears as well as replacing their negative thoughts with positive ones. It includes:
Exposure and response prevention.
If left untreated, IAD can lead to:
Family or relationship problems due to excessive worrying, which can potentially frustrate others.
Money problems due to frequent hospital visits, which can be very expensive.
Other mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorders and depression.
Work problems due to many sick leaves.
It can also affect the person's ability to function normally and carry out day to day activities.
There is no sure way to prevent IAD. Some of the things that you can do are being aware of your symptoms and seeking immediate medical advice. This can prevent the symptoms from getting worse. Performing stress management and relaxation techniques can prevent stress from affecting your health.
If you have been diagnosed with IAS, make sure you take your medications timely and stick to your treatment plan suggested by the mental health professional.
For more information, consult a psychiatrist online now!
Last reviewed at:
15 Jun 2022 - 4 min read
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