We’ve all met a hypochondriac; someone who always thinks something is wrong with them and is abnormally preoccupied about their health. The truth is we’ve also probably been hypochondriacs at some point, and developed irrational concerns about small symptoms. We’ve asked family members if a freckle is cancer or if a scratch has gone septic. But some people become so focussed on the potential of getting sick that they develop illness anxiety disorder. I have just read about this in a new journal article. According to a paper in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society, these people have a genuine mental condition – Illness Anxiety Disorder.
People with this disorder are constantly plagued by health worries. They suspect that an ordinary cough is a sign of lung cancer or that a bruise indicates leukaemia. And they are often not reassured by medical tests. If their heart test shows clear arteries they want it redone because they think it has missed blockages. These people have symptoms that are fleeting or mild, but they’re on a never-ending quest for reassurance from health professionals and yet they reject their doctors’ findings. They cannot be reassured. Do you know someone like this? Could this be you?
Illness Anxiety Disorder Is a Bona Fide Mental Disorder
Dr Timothy Scarella, an instructor in psychiatry at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, is one of the authors of the new paper on Illness Anxiety Disorder. Colleagues Dr Arthur Barsky and Dr Robert Boland are co-authors of the paper, ‘Mega-Anxiety About Health: A Common – And Now Treatable – Condition’.
“Although they’re often derided as peculiar hypochondriacs, people with such intense fears over health are surprisingly common, they have a bona fide mental disorder,” Dr Scarella says of sufferers of Illness Anxiety Disorder.
He says the good news is that these sufferers can be cured.
“Recent evidence shows treatments can relieve their constant worry,” he says.
More than one in ten people have Illness Anxiety Disorder
The experts believe some 13 per cent of the population suffer
from excessive worry about their health. Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD) is now
a genuine mental disorder and is included in the latest edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
“Most people with the disorder are ‘regulars’ in doctors’ offices,” Dr Scarella says, “but a minority are so paralysed by fear that they stay away from medical settings, and that too can lead to problems.”
Usually, the disorder begins when adults are in their 20s to 40s.
Illness Anxiety Disorder is linked to other mental health issues
“It’s fairly common for patients also to have depression or
additional anxiety disorders –panic attacks, phobias, post-traumatic stress
disorder – and parents who were nervous and worried about health,” Dr Scarella says.
Illness Anxiety Disorder takes a terrible toll on a person’s wellbeing, but it also costs the health care system and us taxpayers a lot of money. Remember there are people out there with real illnesses, and it’s not always easy to see a GP. Ideally these people should not be wasting the time of medical specialists.
Patients with Illness Anxiety Disorder visit doctors, specialists and emergency departments more frequently than other people.
“They also take more days off work and make greater use of disability benefits than the general population,” Dr Scarella says. “And they suffer financial losses as a result of time off work and specialists’ bills.”
Illness Anxiety Disorder is fed by online medical information
Dr Scarella says access to medical information via the internet can aggravate the anxiety. These people spend time online researching illnesses and become convinced they have the symptoms. Even ads for medications can convince sufferers that they have a new disease.
Dr Scarella says that if you or anyone you know appears to have this disorder they should see a doctor and get a thorough medical check-up.
“If everything tests out normal, it’s important to acknowledge this anxiety to the doctor,” he advises.
This is when you ask your doctor about seeing a qualified psychologist to get help for the anxiety.
“Research shows that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can lower health anxiety by providing accurate facts about the probability of illnesses and potent strategies to effectively challenge fearful thoughts,” Dr Scarella says. “Don’t feel fatalistic, that you always will be consumed with worry. This really is an anxiety problem, and it’s treatable. Just be assertive about getting the mental health treatment you need.”
Getting Psychological Help in Australia
If you have a mental health condition, you are entitled to a Medicare rebate – that’s where the Government pays part of the cost of your appointment – on at least six, and up to ten, sessions with a psychologist every year.
You need to see your GP, explain what you are going through and ask them if they think you need a mental health treatment plan. The GP will decide if you need a mental health treatment plan and a referral to a psychologist.
There’s no need to be embarrassed about seeing your doctor for this. More than 1.2 million Australians used mental health treatment plans in the 2016 – 2017 financial year. Your GP will refer you to a psychologist or an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker.
Once you have that referral, ring the psychologist and make an appointment. It is vital that you have a good relationship with your psychologist.
It’s up to you which psychologist you choose – the GP can suggest someone, but you don’t have to use that psychologist. You’ve got to get on with them, and you need to know how long their waiting list is.
Cognitive behaviour therapy
Psychologists will often treat you with cognitive behavioural therapy.
Cognitive behaviour therapy aims to help you identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts and to learn practical self-help strategies. These strategies are designed to bring about immediate positive changes in your quality of life.
Cognitive behaviour therapy can be good for anyone who needs support to change unhelpful thoughts that are preventing them from reaching their goals or living the life they want to live.
Cognitive behaviour therapy aims to show you how your thinking affects your mood. It teaches you to think in a less negative way about yourself and your life. It is based on the understanding that thinking negatively is a habit that, like any other habit, can be broken.
You know I always wish you the best when it comes to adopting a positive mindset and embracing life. Leave all your anxieties, including Illness Anxiety Disorder, in the past and get on with living large today!
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.