Cyberchondria otherwise known as ‘compucondria’, the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology based on review of search results and literature online. Articles in popular media position cyberchondria anywhere from temporary neurotic excess to adjunct hypochondria. Cyberchondria is a growing concern among many healthcare practitioners as patients can now research any and all symptoms of a rare disease, illness or condition, and manifest a state of medical anxiety.
The easy availability of health information on the web has certainly helped countless people make educated decisions about their health and medical treatment, but it can be disastrous for people who are likely to worry. Hypochondriacs researching an illness used to have to scour books and ask doctors for information. Now a universe of information is available with a few mouse clicks.
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 find anything wrong, may have a condition called illness anxiety disorder, more commonly known as hypochondria, or hypochondriasis.
How does hypochondria feel?
For a person with hypochondria, normal bodily functions as heart beats, sweating, and bowel movements can seem like symptoms of a serious illness or condition, and minor abnormalities, such as a runny nose, slightly swollen lymph nodes, and a small sore, can feel like serious problems.
The person’s attention may focus on one particular organ, such as the lungs, or just one disease, such as cancer, or they may fear one disease after another.
Health anxiety may cause people to talk excessively about their health, and they may make frequent visits to their physician. They may spend a lot of time searching the internet for symptoms of possible illnesses.
If tests come back negative, the person may find no relief. A negative result can make things even worse, as the patient’s fears grow that no-one believes them, and that problem may never be successfully diagnosed and treated.
Some individuals with the disorder may avoid medical attention, through fear of finding out that they have a serious illness. They may avoid people, places, and activities that they believe could pose a health risk.
An overwhelming fear of disease that lasts for more than 6 months may be a sign of health anxiety disorder.
Symptom of Hypochondria or Somatic Symptom Disorder
People with somatic symptom disorder — commonly called hypochondriacs — are worried about having a physical illness. The symptoms they describe can range from general complaints, such as pain or tiredness, to concerns about normal body functions, such as breathing or stomach noises. People with somatic symptom disorder are not faking or lying about their symptoms; they truly believe they are sick.
Warning signs that a person might have somatic symptom disorder include:
- The person has a history of going to many doctors. He or she may even “shop around” for a doctor who will agree that he or she has a serious illness.
- The person recently experienced a loss or stressful event.
- The person is overly concerned about a specific organ or body system, such as the Heart or the Digestive system.
- The person’s symptoms or area of concern might shift or change.
- A doctor’s reassurance does not calm the person’s fears; he or she believes the doctor is wrong or made a mistake.
- The person’s concern about illness interferes with his or her work, family, and social life.
- The person may suffer from Anxiety, nervousness, and/or Depression.
The exact cause of somatic symptom disorder is not known. Factors that might be involved in the development of the disorder include:
- A history of physical or sexual abuse
- A history of having a serious illness as a child
- A poor ability to express emotions
- A parent or close relative with the disorder; children might learn this behavior if a parent is overly concerned about disease and/or overreacts to even minor illnesses
- An inherited susceptibility for the disorder
How Is Somatic Symptom Disorder Diagnosed?
Diagnosing somatic symptom disorder can be very difficult, because people with the disorder are convinced their symptoms are caused by a medical illness.
When symptoms appear, the doctor will begin his or her evaluation with a complete history and physical exam. If the doctor finds no physical reason for the symptoms, he or she might refer the person to a psychiatrist or psychologist, health care professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. The psychiatrist or psychologist makes a diagnosis based on his or her assessment of the person’s attitude and behavior, and the fact that physical illness has been ruled out as the cause of the symptoms. The psychiatrist or psychologist may administer a personality assessment to confirm the diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder.
How Is Somatic Symptom Disorder Treated?
A main goal of somatic symptom disorder treatment is to help patients live and function as normally as possible, even if they continue to have symptoms. Treatment also aims to alter the thinking and behavior that leads to the symptoms.
The disorder can be very difficult to treat. This is due, in part, to the fact that people who have it refuse to believe their symptoms are the result of mental or emotional rather than physical causes.
Treatment for somatic symptom disorder most often includes a combination of the following options:
Supportive care: In most cases, the best course of action is for the person to stay in regular contact with a trusted health care provider. Within this doctor-patient relationship, the doctor can monitor the symptoms and stay alert to any changes that might signal a real medical illness. The doctor’s main approach is likely to focus on reassuring and supporting the person, and preventing unnecessary tests and treatments. It might be necessary, however, to treat some of the symptoms, such as severe pain.
Medications: Antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs are sometimes used if a person with somatic symptom disorder also has a mood disorder or anxiety disorder.
Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling), particularly cognitive therapy, can be helpful in changing the thinking and behavior that contribute to the symptoms. Therapy also can help the person learn better ways to deal with stress, and improve his or her social and work functioning. Unfortunately, most people with somatic symptom disorder deny there are any mental or emotional problems, making them fairly resistant to psychotherapy.
“Instead of saying, I’m damaged, I’m broken, say I’m healing, I’m rediscovering myself, I’m starting over.”