Hypochondria is the chronic mental state in which the sufferer is constantly occupied with a delusion that he or she is seriously ill. The individual spends a great deal of time seeking cures, has a gloomy turn of mind and is extremely self-centred. He or she is unproductive and drains the resources of family, friends and society by requiring large amounts of the medical profession's time. As well as placing a burden on the individual, it places a burden on society due to excessive health care use. There is also little community awareness it exists. And it is often misdiagnosed as a “personality trait” rather than a treatable condition.
Illness anxiety disorder involves an overwhelming, disabling and crippling fear of illness and is a psychiatric disorder listed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM-5. Illness anxiety disorder replaced the contentious diagnosis of hypochondriasis in previous versions of the DSM. The new label, which is also sometimes referred to as severe health anxiety or health anxiety for short, is less stigmatising, and better reflects the fact anxiety about illness is at the heart of this condition.
The illnesses people fear are vast and varied. While the creative ways the mind interprets what is going on the body can be fascinating, it’s also troubling how debilitating this condition can be. Some people are terrified of having cancer, heart defects, HIV or other STIs, despite repeated reassurance and negative test results. Others are anxious they have neurological conditions and dementia despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. Some are convinced they have parasites, mental illnesses and even Ebola.
Data from an Australian population survey, published in 2013, found illness anxiety affects 5.7% of Australians at some point in their lives. That’s over one million people.
Most people with illness anxiety frequently seek health care, with higher overall rates of health service use in people with illness anxiety compared to the general population. But people may also avoid health care because they are terrified of finding out they are sick.