Headache or Tumor? What Illness Anxiety Disorder Is All About

I woke up with excruciating pain in my stomach yesterday. My first instinct was to pick up the phone and read everything I possibly could about stomach-aches and all that they could imply.

What followed next was plain, raw fear. Dr Google’s diagnosis said I could be suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (ISB), Crohn’s disease, hernia, kidney stones, endometriosis, gallstones or cancer. I fell back on the bed, covered my face with the blanket, and as the spiral of all-that-could-go wrong clouded my head, I fell back to sleep.

A visit to the doctor calmed my nerves and I knew that I had acidity. He prescribed me medicines, told me what I should be eating, and that was it.

But what if that wasn’t it? What if I continued to spend countless days in fear, apprehension and paranoia?

What is Illness Anxiety Disorder?

The preoccupation could be over a single disease or multiple diseases.

Dr Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist, Fortis Healthcare, explains that the disorder is a recognized medical diagnostic category.

According to International Classification of Diseases (ICD) by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the essential feature of the disorder ‘hypochondriasis’ is a persistent preoccupation with the possibility of having one or more serious, progressive or life-threatening diseases.

The preoccupation is associated with catastrophic misinterpretation of bodily signs or symptoms, including normal or commonplace sensations, and is manifest either in repetitive and excessive health-related behaviors or in maladaptive avoidance behaviors related to health.

Dr Chhibber informs that the preoccupation could be over a single disease or multiple diseases, which ends up becoming such a prevalent concern in a person’s mind that it interferes in the daily functioning.

What Makes It a Serious Health Issue?

FIT spoke with Ritika Aggarwal Mehta, Consultant Psychologist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, who explained that the condition is long-term, “It could last over time and characterizes a very serious belief with few or no symptoms.”

"“Rather than absence or presence of a physical ailment, it is about a psychological response to a non-existent problem.”" - Ritika Aggarwal Mehta

The condition is a serious mental health concern as it could disrupt the person’s daily routine, affect his/her social life and even strain relationships.

"“The person’s mind is so preoccupied that it could interfere in his/her daily functioning. Work, personal relationships, ability to go out or engaging in interpersonal relationships — everything could be compromised.”" - Dr Kamna Chhibber

Moreover, she adds, the condition could inch towards other mental health disorders like depression. You are constantly thinking of the worst, which affects your mood and may frustrate those around.

It is also common for people with the disorder to give up on their health. As Ritika Aggarwal Mehta explains,

"“Some people stop looking after themselves. For instance, you could stop exercising because of the fear that it increases your heart rate. So you just avoid doing things that are actually beneficial for you.”" - Ritika Aggarwal MehtaSigns and Symptoms

Does your fear of an illness last longer than a few months?

Conversations with the psychologists revealed some common symptoms that may be indicative of illness anxiety disorder:

  • The concern and conviction about something being wrong lasts over months
  • Multiple visits to the same doctor or consulting multiple doctors (also called doctor shopping), despite evidence that there is no real issue
  • Being constantly preoccupied with the thought; finding yourself discussing it all the time, even during social interactions
  • Analyzing your body again and again; even a minor rash becomes worrying
  • Impairment of daily functionality. The distress may affect work and relationships, leading possibly to personal or financial strains
  • Negative impact on mood and feelings of gloom and despair; probably hinting towards other mental health problems

Interestingly, Dr Chhibber explained that such people may misunderstand the concern and consolation they receive from families or friends. She said, “Attention and care from loved ones may reinforce the doubt. People with the disorder may not understand that this concern is because they are struggling, not because they actually have a health issue.”

Is Dr Google Always Right?

Consulting Dr Google might reassure, unnerve or calm you, but it will never, ever treat you.

For all its help and assistance, internet may also be the cause of worsening cases of illness anxiety disorder.

"“It is increasingly becoming a substitute of medical consultation. You’re simply googling the symptoms, and very rarely, getting a holistic understanding. You just end up misdiagnosing the condition, leading to further anxiety and a false belief that there is a problem.”" - Dr Kamna Chhibber

Ritika Mehta agrees, and says that in the end, it’s all about how much you believe in the internet. People end up thinking, “If it is read by everyone, it can’t be wrong. Doctors are humans. They could be wrong.”

She suggests that internet could benefit us all if used in the right way. For instance, try reversing the order.

"“Consult a doctor first, listen to what he/she has to say, and then you may surf the internet for a better understanding of the problem. If something worries you then, ask the doctor about it.”" - Ritika Aggarwal Mehta

Dr Kamna Chibber advises, “Even if you want to google, sit with us and do it so that we can help you interpret it, because of course, there could be multiple interpretations of the same thing.”

Trust Your Doctor

Since it is a medical condition, a proper medical intervention can be done.

"“The root cause is anxiety. You treat that component depending on the severity of the condition. Intensive therapeutic work to teach people the right coping mechanisms and give them the ability to take control of their thought process. Combat the consistent worrying with an alternative thought pattern. You may need a combination of psychotherapy and a psychiatry.”" - Dr Kamna Chhibber

Dr Mehta adds that the basic premise is that thoughts are affecting emotions and behavior, so cognitive behavior therapy could help. “We examine the person’s history, possible stressors, alcohol or drug usage, or any other factor that could have instigated his/her condition. A support group may also be recommended.”

"“In the end, it’s all about taking good care of yourself and addressing a concern as soon as it springs up. If you delay it, it could manifest into a firm and unshakable belief.”" - Ritika Aggarwal Mehta

Remember to trust your doctor. Have faith in the fact that medical practitioners are offering you sufficient advice, and that multiple reports cannot be incorrect.

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