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.
"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, antidepressant medications, 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.
Seranno finally laid down the law and made her husband see a doctor, who put him on medication used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. While it's still an almost nightly battle to get him to take his pills, he's become a happier person. "As his wife, I feel as though it's my responsibility to help him live the best life possible," Serrano says, "even if that means a little tough love from time to time. You do what you can to help them."
Do you think your beloved has hypochondria? If so, take these four steps:
Check up. First, get your spouse to see a doctor you trust, says Fallon. Seeking a second opinion is fine, but if both doctors agree there's nothing physically wrong, suggest a visit to a psychiatrist.
Be caring but firm. Carla Cantor, author of Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myth of Hypochondria, recommends helping your spouse tie symptoms to stress, or emotional upheavals.
Don't dwell on illness. Encourage your spouse to verbalize fears about health, but don't join in, Cantor advises. If you feel yourself getting anxious, gently change the subject.
Consider couples therapy. While cognitive behavioral therapy can help the person with hypochondria, examining how the disorder affects your relationship will help you work together to battle it.