Illness Anxiety Disorder

Illness anxiety disorder, also known as hypochondriasis, is a psychiatric condition in which a person is preoccupied with having or developing a serious medical illness. Individuals with this condition may or may not have diagnosed medical conditions, but no serious disease is present in most cases. If a medical condition is present, the person displays an anxiety around the illness that is clearly excessive.

Symptoms

Individuals with illness anxiety disorder have a high level of anxiety about health and are easily alarmed by illness, such as through hearing about someone else becoming sick or reading about illness in the news. They are easily worried about their own health status and perform excessive health-related behaviors, such as repeatedly checking their body for signs of illness. Some people with this condition avoid situations that they fear may cause them to fall ill, such as doctor appointments, visits to health facilities, and visiting sick family members.

Physical symptoms are usually not present and the distress caused by this condition does not come from physical complaints, but rather from a person’s anxiety about the meaning or cause of the physical complaint. Concerns about illness may be so extreme that they are a central feature of a  person’s identity and self-image. Illness becomes a frequent topic of conversation and any stressful life events trigger even further  concerns about illness. This high level of anxiety can be impairing and cause frustration in others, leading to strain within the family or other important relationships.

Causes

The cause of illness anxiety disorder is not known. It is generally thought to be a chronic condition that starts in early and middle adulthood. Major life stress might precede the development of symptoms in some cases. Additionally, a history of childhood abuse or serious childhood illness may be a risk factor for developing illness anxiety disorder later in life.

Illness anxiety disorder presents equally in males and females. Prevalence estimates range from 1.3 percent to 10 percent in the general population.

Treatment

People with illness anxiety disorder are seen more frequently in medical than in mental health settings because they believe they are medically ill. It is common for people with this condition to see multiple doctors as they search for a diagnosis, and limiting primary care to one provider is an important element of treatment to prevent excessive tests or procedures.

Psychotropic medications can help treat the underlying anxiety and/or depressive symptoms that people with illness anxiety disorder experience. Psychotherapy is also an effective form of treatment that helps individuals recognize the triggers that cause their symptoms and learn coping skills to manage their anxiety. 

References

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Last reviewed 11/10/2017