A branch of anxiety that is spreading
In a narrow corner of a house, somewhere in the world, there is a scared teenager that fears his life is, probably, going to end soon. He is crying his eyes out, creating scenarios in his head, trembling and panicking that his medical condition is getting worse with every minute that passes. Or, at least, that’s what he believes, or what his brain wants him to think.
Imagine that you are locked in a square, a square that has no ventilation, no exit door, or no physical way to get out of it. The only way to get out of it is your brain, or to be more specific, your thoughts. And that is the worst part for someone who suffers from hypochondria. Sometimes, that is also the worst part for me, whereas I have been suffering from this mental disorder for quite some time now. The generalized anxiety has caused this hidden fear of constantly having symptoms associated with various diseases, and this fear gradually turned into an obsession that is eating me from the inside. The human mind is more than just cognitive processes, thinking, and memory, the fear of the unknown and disease itself are exacerbated in those with hypochondria. Their brain sends them false messages, which can gradually lead to somatoform disorders when the patient creates his own symptoms until they turn real while putting them on the basis of rare diseases. But hypochondria is a mental disorder that affects a lot of people from all around the world. And in fact, due to social factors, availability of free and continuous information online, and major events in recent years, like the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of hypochondriac people has increased, according to bbc.com.
In some simpler words, hypochondriasis, or illness anxiety disorder, represents someone’s persistent fear of suffering from a serious, incurable disease, difficult to diagnose. According to mayoclinic.org, “significant health anxiety can cause real distress for the person, and reassurance isn’t always helpful. Sometimes, providing reassurance can make things worse”. It is generally known that hypochondriacs (people who suffer from hypochondria disease) are constantly checking whether they suffer from a specific illness (for example cancer) or not, by looking or searching up online their symptoms. That manifestation is called cyberchondria. Besides, they often focus on different body parts and their functionality (for example heart if the chest hurts). This continuous pressure over self-diagnosis can greatly affect the personal, social and professional life of the person itself.
According to centerforanxietydisorders.com, people who suffer from hypochondria disorder also suffer from other co-existing psychiatric disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (O.C.D.), panic disorder, major anxiety disorder, or major depression.
Teodora Alexandrescu is a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist based in Cluj-Napoca. Her main focus as a psychotherapist is the proper management of patients’ emotions, personality disorders, personal development, and stress. I wanted to find out more about this mental disorder, its severity of it, and the long-term problems it can actually cause to people. Teodora mentioned that there is not a well-defined cause for the appearance of hypochondria symptoms, but that there are factors such as the environment, genetic vulnerability or current diagnosis, age, stress, trauma, and personal or family health history that may predispose a person to develop anxiety about the disease. For example, if a kid has grown up in a family with a relatively long history of illness, and has constantly been warned regarding the state of their health and how to prevent it, it is obvious for them to develop a greater concern about illness than those around them.
Why do people choose therapy?
I was curious to know how people end up resorting to psychotherapy to treat this disorder, but not only, also anxiety in general. Teodora Alexandrescu explained that one beneficial way in which people can improve their mental illness is through psychotherapy:
“Going to therapy has increased a lot due to its promotion in the online environment, through famous people, social networks, by motivating more and more people to take this step.”Psychoterapist Teodora Alexandrescu
According to apa.org, in 2021, psychologists reported that the demand for going to therapy has doubled since 2020 (from 37% in 2020 to 62% in 2021). This fact could be attributed to the major anxiety that the pandemic has caused people at the cognitive level. On the other hand, she recounted how patients have often stated that they choose to come to a psychologist because they want to be understood and listened, “to know that their symptoms indicate a diagnosis or to understand why they think, feel or behave in a specific way, things you can’t get from anywhere”.
As a hypochondriac, I had periods when my anxiety gradually increased due to symptoms that never disappeared, to the point where my mind could not make a logical connection with their real cause. In these situations, you feel overwhelmed by your own mind, and the opinions of those around you no longer matter. Or at least that was the tip of the iceberg in my case with hypochondria. I wasted time resorting to costly investigations, just to reassure my mind that what I was experiencing was just part of my anxiety. And that is also what Teodora Alexandrescu stated:
“Unfortunately, there are still many people who become motivated to come to therapy after expensive investigations and find that they have no conclusive symptoms to confirm a diagnosis of physical illness.”Psychoterapist Teodora Alexandrescu
The reality is that most of the time, your mind turns into your worst enemy, and creates scenarios when your symptoms are something that no one has ever had before. Still, it is also the mind that can make these fears, obsessions, and symptoms go away. But it needs help for that. And that comes from therapy.
R. (19) has been clinically diagnosed with hypochondria and generalized anxiety 2 years ago when she thought she had a brain tumor because her headaches were extreme at that time. She appealed to medication to treat it herself, and just after a lot of brain scans, blood tests, and nervous breakdowns, she decided to go to a psychiatrist. R. told me that it was suggested that she started psychotherapy and begin doing meditation because her headaches were due to her major anxiety disorder. Besides, she mentioned that she had run into lots of teenagers that face these struggles, and that explained how much therapy has helped in improving their physical symptoms. Ever since then, she has been working hard to diminish her anxiety and focus more on improving and learning to control her obsessions regarding having different hardcore diseases.
Another person that I discovered to have struggled with hypochondria is Bianca (21). She is currently no longer going to therapy to treat it but has adopted a very healthy mindset and lifestyle, since the last episode of acute hypochondria. Back then, she was insanely terrified of the idea of having lupus, an autoimmune disease that usually affects internal organs, like the kidney. She was having pains and was exaggerating her symptoms. She went past that in a couple of months. But after that, she requested emotional help.
Hypochondria is a mental disorder when the obsessive behavior and thinking over catching a cold, having a headache or excessive drowsiness can slowly turn into catastrophes for those in case. Normal things, from a medical point of view, are exacerbated and obsessive until they even become annoying for those around the person who complains of symptoms. The psychotherapist explains that hypochondriacs end up isolating themselves for fear of upsetting the ones they care for, or of becoming contaminated if they even have a simple cold. It is a vicious cycle that repeats itself indefinitely, and this affects them even at work, in the performance of tasks of the slightest nature, because their minds stand only at the symptoms themselves. Some of them may become obsessed with medication, pills that from their perspective could help them, or they may resort to the use of banned substances, drugs, or alcohol to treat this excessive anxiety, the fear in general.
Statistics show that this mental disorder is quite rare worldwide. One of these studies says that only 0.1% of Americans are affected by it. But even in this case, hypochondria is a type of anxiety that also manifests itself in various forms. It falls into the same sphere as many other anxiety-related disorders.
What is the healing process of Hypochondria?
The road to healing anxiety is quite long and depends mainly on the patient’s willingness and perseverance to reach a common denominator with his own mind. At the spiritual level, therapy becomes an environment conducive to the release of emotions, where there is empathy and moral support from a professional who knows the essential tools to rebuild the brain, after its metaphorical damage. Teodora explained that the process she uses to help people with anxiety disorders involves several steps:
“First of all, clinical evaluation to establish a diagnosis, assessment of the need for drug treatment, normalization and reduction of stigma while strengthening a therapeutic relationship are very important aspects. Furthermore, I resort to interventions to reduce physiological symptoms, cognitive interventions to reduce irrational cognitions based on which symptoms are maintained, behavioral interventions, graded in vivo exposures, and last but not least, relapse prevention”.Psychoterapist Teodora Alexandrescu
There are many relaxation techniques that the psychotherapist suggests to help get rid of generalized stress, even meditation, acupuncture, yoga, and others. But the human mind is the most complex of all, and when you feel the need for help, in any form, you should ask for it. Because that’s part of the healing process.
There have been many times when hypochondria has stopped me from being happy with myself, made people get out of my life, and made me blame myself for not being able to defeat it. It is a constant struggle that you have with yourself, in fact. It takes time and effort, but there is also an escape route if you look for it long enough. One thing that is essential to be known is that we should not feel alone in the battle with these problems. And everyone should be able to heal from the things they don’t talk about.