Despite official recognition in the DSM, those with hypochondriasis are often treated with the respect and seriousness of a Scott Baio film festival. “It’s an obsession, and oftentimes people don’t want to listen to someone’s obsessions,” says Gail Martz-Nelson, a Denver psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders. “‘I’m terrified I have HIV, I’m terrified I have cancer, I’m terrified I have lymphoma.’ People hear that and dismiss it or laugh it off. But being a hypochondriac can be crippling. It’s not a joke.”
Generally speaking, hypochondriacs aren’t merely hypochondriacs. Most struggle with anxiety or depression—or both, says Swanljung. “When someone is anxious about having an illness, the anxiety level goes up, the stress level goes up,” he says. “That can lead to headaches, to stomach and digestive problems. Anxiety definitely can cause pain, and if you’re a hypochondriac you react to that pain in a unique way.”
No amount of reassurance helps.
“The brain is so powerful that it really can convince itself of illness,” says Caroline Goldmacher-Kern, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. “You know something is wrong because you believe what you’re thinking, and what you’re thinking is what you perceive to be feeling. So you can have five people tell you it’s all in your mind and that’s not good enough.”
In a piece for Psychology Today, a man with hypochondria attempts to understand his disorder.
Painting: Court of Death via Wikimedia Commons