For as long as I can remember, I've been afraid that something will go horribly wrong with my body. It wasn't until I was in my early twenties that I realized my fear was quite irrational. I am a hypochondriac, and simply realizing this has made me feel healthier somehow. Hypochondria is quite common, and has become even more prevalent since the advent of the Internet...more and more people attempt to self-diagnose, which often leads to panic.

Hypochondria manifests itself as an intense fear of illness. The hypochondriac will obsess over the inner workings of his or her body, thinking that every little itch, twinge, or minor ache is a warning sign of cancer or an impending heart attack. Hypochondria can occur on its own, or can be part of a more generalized obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hypochondriacs may become depressed or experience panic attacks. In extreme cases, hypochondria can interfere with a person's daily life; at this point, it is probably a good idea to see a therapist. Antidepressant drugs are sometimes in order for the very anxious hypochondriac.

Some general characteristics of hypochondria are:

  • Vague physical "symptoms" such as barely perceptible pain or tingling that seems to move from one part of the body to another.
  • A sense of doom regarding the future; the hypochondriac often anticipates an early death from a horrible illness.
  • A conviction that something is really wrong, despite doctors' reassurrances that the person is in fine health.
  • A tendency to poke and prod at one's body, and mistake normal body parts (such as lymph nodes) for dangerous growths.
  • Usually begins in a person's early twenties.
  • Occurs about equally in both males and females.

It is not clear exactly what triggers hypochondria, but certainly if a child grows up in an environment where a member of his or her immediate family is always sick, it is more likely that the child will end up looking for symptoms in himself or herself. In my case, my grandfather was diabetic and my mother suffered from varying forms of mental illness until her death at the age of 45. I was 21 when my mother died, and this event triggered my own hypochondria quite intensely. She had no history of heart disease, yet she apparently died of a heart attack. I began to fixate on my own heart and wonder if I was just going to drop dead! Eventually this fear passed, when I realized that my mother's condition was probably due to her poor diet and lack of exercise.

Some hypochondriacs are motivated by a need for attention or sympathy; they see illness as a means to get others to coddle them. This is normally a subconscious drive; this sort of hypochondriac will genuinely think there is something wrong with them. These are the people you will see going to the doctor with every minor complaint, and ordering extensive tests that are most likely unnecessary. Other hypochondriacs, however, objectively KNOW there is probably nothing wrong with them -- yet they are bothered by persistent, recurring fears of illness. These people keep their fears to themselves, looking up symptoms on the Internet or in medical books when they are alone, and panicking silently. The "silent" hypochondriac might be afraid to go to the doctor because of what the doctor might find.

My own hypochondria is not severe enough to prompt me to go into therapy, but it definitely affects me. I have discovered a useful thought exercise that lessens the stress I feel about my health. Simply put, I take each day at a time, telling myself in the morning:

Today, I will not worry about my health. If I think I feel something amiss, I will not let myself assume the worst. I will think about something else.

This, of course, does not mean a person should ignore ALL strange bodily sensations. All I am trying to do is convince myself to NOT assume that every headache is a brain tumor, because that sort of thinking serves only to create stress and interfere with the enjoyment of life. If a person is locked into a pattern of obsessing, it takes a lot of mental discipline to break the habit. Get a hobby, and make sure you have people around to talk to about non-health related matters. The more time you spend bored or by yourself, the more time you will have to sit there and fixate on your body. If you have been deathly afraid of illness for months or years, yet you're still alive, that ought to tell you something!

Personal Experience and observation