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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
We’ve all had that friend who constantly worries about how they are feeling and if they are sick. And let’s be real, for some of us, maybe we’ve been that friend full of worry.
However, hypochondria — now known as illness anxiety disorder (IAD) — takes this worry to a different extreme.
Illness anxiety disorder isn’t just worrying about an illness — it’s a kind of panic about signs of illness that can lead to an actual disruption in your daily life.
Translation: It can cause you to feel extreme anxiety about your health.
Read on to learn more about illness anxiety disorder, different symptoms that may arise and ways to treat it if it pops up.
IAD is a constant, intense fear of having or contracting a medical illness or medical condition, and it can show up differently for different people.
In most cases, for those with an illness anxiety disorder, physical symptoms are absent. And if there are physical symptoms, they’re usually nothing major and won’t actually point to signs of illness (or at least not a physical illness).
Illness anxiety disorder is sometimes confused with somatic symptom disorder, which is when someone outwardly shows physical symptoms (like shortness of breath or weakness) and believes they are sick, but yet their symptoms don’t relate to a medical condition. However, this is a different anxiety disorder from IAD.
Other types of disorders that can be confused with IAD include body dysmorphia, a condition where someone obsessively is concerned their appearance is ugly or unattractive to others.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can also be confused with IAD, because when someone is experiencing illness anxiety disorder, their thoughts can be obsessive.
However, if you have OCD, you’ll likely have obtrusive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors about a variety of things, whereas with IAD, you’ll just obsess over health worries.
In sum, IAD doesn’t encompass different types of health anxiety disorders, but rather involves different criteria, depending on how symptoms show up.
The main causes of illness anxiety disorder are largely unknown. However, scientists have theories about potential risk factors that may lead to this type of anxiety. These include:
If someone grew up in a family with major health concerns or a history of childhood illness, they may be more likely to be concerned about their own health.
For instance, growing up around those who’ve experienced a serious illness, generalized anxiety disorder, or other mental health disorders could impact your thought patterns as you age.
Research suggests that any underlying anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, may put someone at greater risk of health-related anxiety.
Normal sensations, bodily functions or physical changes could cause someone with anxiety — and more specifically, someone with IAD — to assume something is wrong, when in fact these shifts are natural.
Some researchers posit that the more information you consume, the more likely you are to worry. For example, if you spend hours on the internet looking up diseases or pouring through medical pamphlets, it puts you at a greater risk for IAD.
The DSM-5, a mental health diagnoses guideline, originally listed hypochondriasis as a disorder, which is probably why you might have heard the term hypochondria.
However, as mentioned above, hypochondria is now called an illness anxiety disorder, outlined as a condition that’s part of a larger family of different types of anxiety disorders.
The DSM-5 describes symptoms of illness anxiety disorder as extreme concern and excessive anxiety about life-threatening illnesses — with no physical symptoms of such illnesses.
Which in return impacts quality of life.
Symptoms often include obsessive behavior like constantly checking your body or seeking medical care.
To be diagnosed with IAD, you typically would show symptoms for more than six months.
The DSM-5 also relays that illness anxiety is actually an “exclusionary” disorder — meaning a primary care provider must rule out other possible diagnoses (including actual disease and other mental health conditions).
And once a healthcare provider determines you have IAD, they’ll refer you to a mental health professional.
An interesting point to note when it comes to illness anxiety is that if you have it, you might have a different approach to medical care vs. another person with IAD.
There are generally two ‘types’ of leanings for those experiencing IAD. These include:
A care-seeking type is someone who seeks care often and overuses the healthcare system.
This person might ask for tests, bloodwork, physical examinations, scans and more to see if they are showing signs of illness or have a medical condition.
A care-avoidant type is someone who avoids consulting with a healthcare professional. This may be due to a fear of the healthcare provider confirming the illness or even confirming the fact of the ‘fear’ itself.
If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of illness anxiety disorder for more than six months, a healthcare provider will typically recommend a three-pronged treatment plan to help improve your symptoms over a period of time.
Treatments for IAD include:
For many IAD patients, therapy for anxiety is the first line of treatment.
Those with illness anxiety disorder may especially see improvements through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help address obsessive behaviors (like repeatedly checking the body for illness) and reduce related anxious thoughts.
Medication is another common treatment option for IAD. Antidepressants, specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors(SSRI’s) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI’s) have been found to be effective in treating illness anxiety disorder.
Illness anxiety disorder is extreme anxiety about health that can be debilitating for those who experience it.
If you have IAD, the fear of contracting an illness or being sick can be overwhelming and consume your thoughts and inform your behavior.
Although illness anxiety disorder falls within the anxiety disorder family, it is its own condition with a specific diagnosis.
The risk factors for IAD aren’t fully known, although your medical and family histories can play a role in predisposing you to the disorder.
If you’re experiencing anxiety, consulting with a healthcare provider can be your best bet to relieve symptoms. He or she may prescribe medication, suggest online counseling and deliver overall health support.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.