Illness Anxiety Disorder

In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) the condition hypochondriasis was scrapped in favor of illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder. This was because these were two very distinct conditions that were often confused with one or the other.

While both of them are similar in that they are very much obsessed with insisting that they are or someone else is sick, the new terms are used to cater to their more specific definitions. Somatic symptom disorder refers to the individuals that have somatic complaints.

They have symptoms that they can feel that are very distressing to them. The symptom could be pain or probably fatigue. The ones who suffer from illness anxiety disorder, on the other hand, do not have any or have mild symptoms but they are insisting that they are sick or someone will become ill. 

Knowing The Illness

To be more specific, the illness anxiety disorder is the preoccupation and fear of acquiring or having a serious medical condition or illness. The qualifier for doctors to consider if patients have it should be the persistence of the symptoms of the condition longer than a six-month period even if they have been reassured that they are fine. They insist on having a serious illness even if they have had tests done and the results are all clear.  

With this condition, we don’t have any physical symptoms. It tends to be just worrying that we are ill or we are going to become ill. This worry takes over us to the point that we start thinking that normal bodily conditions or minor physical problems are a sign that something very grave is happening to us.

A mild headache is construed as a sign of a brain tumor or a cough is interpreted as a sign of having lung cancer. Also, if we have any existing medical condition or if we have a high risk of getting one we become consumed with worry.

So for example, those who have asthma do not move because they are worried that they might have an attack if they do. And if a family member has had cancer, there are those who are obsessively convinced that they are going to get it, too. They begin to excessively check for symptoms because they are worried by that thought.  

Symptoms Of The Disorder 

The key symptom to recognizing illness anxiety disorder is having this high level of anxiety that we are ill and we are going to be ill. This means that it has a major impact on our lives because we spend a lot of time being anxious and it is stopping us from doing things we want and need to do.   

The DSM-5 lists at six diagnostic criteria for the disorder. The first is that there is a pre-occupation with having or acquiring a serious illness. Next, somatic symptoms are not present or just mild in intensity. If another medical condition is present or there is a high risk of developing a condition, the preoccupation is excessive or disproportionate.

anxiety disorder
The third is that there is a high level of anxiety about health and the person is easily alarmed about personal health status. The slightest thing is a cause for alarm and a warning sign already. The fourth criterion is that the person performs excessive health-related behaviors or maladaptive avoidance. It’s either the person excessively and repeatedly checks our bodies to make sure that he or she is fine or the person avoids going to the doctor because he or she is afraid that the doctor will confirm the worst worries.

The next criterion is that the illness preoccupation should have been present for at least six months but the specific illness that they fear they have may have changed over that period of time. The illness that they fear may not be consistent but the fear and anxiety that they have is the key to diagnosing this condition. The sixth criterion is that the illness-related preoccupation is not better explained by another mental health disorder like somatic symptom disorder, panic disorder, GAD, or OCD. This is the mental health professional checking out and ruling out other possible disorders that might fit the bill. 

What Causes It?

Since this condition is still relatively new, there are still no known causes but there are risk factors that you can consider. If you grew up in a family that had members who were very concerned or always worried too much about their health, then there is a likelihood that you will develop that habit as well, and maybe progress to having the health anxiety condition.

There is a saying that nobody knows your body better than you. This means that you are aware of what happens to your body so you know that there could be something wrong. But if you do not have a good understanding of body sensations or if you don’t have a good understanding of how diseases and their symptoms work, then you might think that all sensations are serious. This will also lead you to search for any evidence that will confirm your fears that you have something dreadful.

Other possible triggers of the condition could be a major stress in life or a threat of a serious illness that turned out to be otherwise. There could also have been a history of abuse as a child. There is also the possibility that you or a family member suffered from a serious illness that you haven’t been able to shake off that feeling of dread.  And if you are a natural worrier, it also does not help that you rely only on the Internet for anything health-related. What you see on the Web could be symptoms of a different disease. 

You Need To See A Doctor

The first step is to actually see a doctor. This is because it really might be related to health problems. But if after evaluation you still hold on to the belief that you are sick, they will recommend that you see a mental health provider so your anxiety will be addressed. Illness anxiety disorder can be stressful for the patient and their loved ones.

Even the reassurances from their support system can make things worse.  The condition can also affect performance at work and be a major stress also on your finances. It’s either you miss a lot of days at work or you actually get fired because of all those days you take off from work. There is little money to go around because you have spent most of it in too many useless health care visits and procedures. 

anxiety disorder

Treatment And Self-Care

While still being in its early stages of conception, there is still little research done on illness anxiety disorder. But the approach to prevention and treatment will be very much similar to other mental health conditions. You can opt for psychotherapy treatments like cognitive-behavioral treatment, exposure therapy, and behavioral stress management. As a last resort, your therapist may recommend you use medications but this is for the more extreme cases where long-term therapy has not been able to make any progress.  

One of the ways you can get to avoid this condition is for you to get your mind off it. You can do some physical activities and practice stress management techniques. You can do some mindful meditation so you can relax. Fighting the condition still has a long way to go. But if you work with your doctor as soon as possible, the better your chances that the condition will not take root in your life.