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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

Someone is described as a hypochondriac when they experience anxieties about health, either in general or with specific illnesses. While we all have health anxieties, which can be useful to avoid injury or certain illnesses, the concerns of a hypochondriac are considered disproportionate to the threat. It can become all-consuming and have a significant impact on their everyday life.

What are the symptoms?

Hypochondriasis and anxiety are closely linked – one can lead to the other. This can lead to panic symptoms like a fast heart rate, sweating, feeling of impending doom, and chest tightness. These symptoms can be mistaken for physical illness and thus perpetuate the cycle further.

Hypochondriacs are often frequent attendees at the doctor’s office or emergency department, requesting extensive investigations and then worrying that things have been missed. They often do extensive research into a particular symptom or condition, avidly reading medical information online and in the media.

They may show avoidance behavior, steering clear of certain people and places that threaten illness. They may avoid certain information that contradicts their view of the threat an illness poses.

They may sometimes act ill and take on the sick role prematurely.

How has the pandemic affected hypochondriacs?

Unfortunately, the threat of illness during the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these feelings. There has been a genuine threat to people’s health, and there have been measures people are encouraged to take to reduce this threat.

Taken to a disproportionate degree, this may lead some to fear leaving their home and feeling very anxious if people around them are not wearing masks or are getting too close.

If you are a hypochondriac, every cough, even if clearing your throat, could represent a fear that you have caught COVID-19. You will have read about people admitted to the hospital and dying from it. This will occupy your thoughts rather than thinking of the majority of people who only get mild symptoms.

What can I do to help?

Recognizing that you are having difficulties is an important step in recovery. It may be helpful for you to write down your thoughts. This will allow you to revisit them when you are in a different headspace and challenge them appropriately. For example, reflect on whether your symptoms could be related to stress or anxiety instead.

Relaxation techniques and mindfulness are often helpful if thoughts are racing and you begin feeling out of control.

When should I see my doctor?

Speak to your doctor about your symptoms if you feel like your worries are getting out of control and affecting your daily life. They can refer you to psychological counseling, where techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are very good at helping people challenge their thoughts.

Your doctor may also consider prescribing anti-anxiety medication if you both agree that would help.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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