Sometimes recognizing hypochondria takes a little time.
It wasn't until Rebecca Serrano (not her real name) had been married for a full year that she realized her new husband had a problem. Once, he was convinced he had testicular cancer -- but he wouldn't go to the doctor. Another time, when he got a sinus infection, he thought it was a brain tumor.
Many people pick at their skin once in a while, but sometimes it crosses the line into a condition called skin picking disorder (excoriation).
When this happens, picking at the skin -- for example, picking a scab or the skin around your nails -- can become so frequent and intense that it causes bleeding, sores, and scars.
Some people with this disorder repeatedly scratch to try to remove what they see as some kind of imperfection in their skin.
"This anxiety literally led him to feel more pain than a normal person would feel. He had panic attacks and was in such a slump over any minor illness," says the 30-year-old Indianapolis stay-at-home mom.
What her husband does have, however, is hypochondria (health care professionals use the less pejorative term "heightened illness concern"). Both describe someone who has unexplained medical symptoms and worries about having a serious illness. Hypochondria is recognized as a true mental disorder, affecting approximately 5% to 10% of us.
Symptoms of Hypochondria
People with hypochondria are catastrophizers, says Brian A. Fallon, MD, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at New York State Psychiatric Institute. The disorder can take many forms. Some people become anxious or depressed, and others become obsessed with learning everything they can about symptoms and illnesses. Some go from doctor to doctor, hoping to find a diagnosis or confirmation of their fears, while others are afraid to seek treatment at all. With the latter, it's often a worried spouse, like Serrano, or a family doctor who encourages them to get psychiatric help.
Hypochondria seems to be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it might be caused by an imbalance of serotonin, a mood stabilizer, or other chemicals in the brain. There's no cure, but cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressantmedications, or a combination of the two help some people.
Hypochondria can be just as hard on a partner. "It can lead to great strain in the relationship to have the repetitive need for reassurance driving all interactions," Fallon says.
Dealing With a Spouse With Hypochondria
For the spouse of someone with hypochondria, canceled vacations, 24-hour caretaking, the cycle of frustration and guilt for not being supportive enough, and worrying that you might be overlooking a serious illness all take their toll.