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Illness Anxiety Disorder

Kathryn Patricelli, MA

What is Illness Anxiety Disorder?

The symptoms of this disorder include:

  • being preoccupied with having or getting a serious illness.
  • bodily symptoms are not present or, if present, are very mild.
  • having a lot of anxiety about health and being easily alarmed about the status of his/her health or illness in general. For example, the persons gets upset when he hears someone else has become ill or when she reads a health-related article. People with this condition also consider symptoms more serious than they are (they have a headache, so it must be a brain tumor).
  • performing excessive health-related behaviors. This might include checking their body for signs of illness, constantly going to the doctor's office or requesting tests/procedures be done (known as the care-seeking type of illness anxiety disorder). Or the person may be avoiding health-related issues. This might include not ever going to the doctor or not going to a hospital, even though the person believes they have a serious medical condition (the care-avoidant type of illness anxiety disorder).
  • this obsession with illness has been going on for at least 6 months. The illness the person is worrying about may change over that period of time, but the worry about illness in general has been going on for at least that long.
  • these symptoms aren't explained by another mental disorder. This could include conditions, such as somatic symptom disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

How common is Illness Anxiety Disorder?

Current statistics are based on past estimates of hypochondriasis and are believed to be in the range of 1.3 to 10%. The disorder occurs fairly equally in both men and women.

The disorder is most commonly seen in early and middle adulthood. Generally, those that are older or elderly focus on memory loss as the main illness or serious threat. The disorder is not commonly seen in children.

What are the risk factors for Illness Anxiety Disorder?

This condition can sometimes happen after a stressful event in a person's life. It can also happen after the person has been ill with a mild or non-life threatening illness. Childhood abuse or having a serious illness as a child may also be a risk for developing this condition.

What other disorders or conditions often occur with Illness Anxiety Disorder?

Because this is a new condition, it isn't yet known for sure what other conditions may happen with it. People with conditions that had similar symptoms were often found to also have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, OCD, and depression. Research suggests that as many as two-thirds of people with this disorder also have another mental condition.

How is Illness Anxiety Disorder treated?

Having a doctor that the person trusts and can communicate with is very important for treatment. The goal will be to improve daily living and functioning, not necessarily about managing the physical symptoms, and to reduce the level of worry and anxiety being experienced.

The process will generally start with a full physical examination. This is done to make sure there are no medical conditions that are causing or affecting the symptoms.

Another treatment is psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The therapist can help the person look at and change thoughts that may be causing some of the problems. This change in thoughts will also help reduce the worry and anxiety that the person feels.

Family therapy can also be used to help family members deal with their thoughts and feelings about the person's condition and to teach them ways to support and help the patient as they work to change their thoughts and behavior.

Medication can be used to treat symptoms such as anxiety and depression, or sleeplessness, but does not cure the overall condition. Stress management techniques can be used to help deal with the worry and stress that is felt. Staying active and doing activities with other people can also be helpful. Staying off health-related internet sites and away from medical articles and television programs is also suggested.