How to Help Someone with Hypochondria

31 October, 2020
What's hypochondria? What causes it? What can you do to help someone who has it? In today's article, we'll try to answer some of these questions.

It isn’t easy to help someone with hypochondria. Exposing yourself to the worrying symptoms of people with this disorder can cause a lot of frustration, especially when it’s a member of your family. This is especially true when the resources available to you to help the individual are limited. In addition, hypochondriacs often feel a lack of emotional validation about their complaints, which often leads them to prefer isolation and solitude.

Independently of whether the illness is potentially real or not, people with hypochondria do experience the symptoms they’re complaining about. In other words, they’re not faking it. While medical examinations might rule out the existence of a physical illness, hypochondriac patients tend to ask for more tests and exams to confirm their suspicions to others.

Hypochondria: emotional and behavioral components

Hypochondria is characterized by excessive worry about one’s health and possible causes of illness. The key emotional component is a fear that’s specifically with health. An individual with hypochondria attributes nearly all of the signals from their body as signs of a potentially serious illness that threatens their well-being or even their life.

This fear is often related to anxiety. It’s the visible part of anxiety disorders, more specifically of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Another key component to hypochondria is repetitive self-explorations related to physical symptoms and the changes they trigger in the body. For example, moles, weight, injuries, and types of pain. They try to use these observations to show that their illness is real.

A woman checking her pulse.

Hypochondria on the Internet: collecting illnesses

What comes up on a search engine when you type “headache?” Reading about certain symptoms on the Internet gives hypochondriacs tools, or what they think are tools, for self-diagnosis. Once they think they know what they have, they look for more information but only pay attention to the things that confirm what they already believe. They ignore everything else. We call this confirmation bias.

Internet search engines are a double-edged sword in terms of feeding fears about your health. It’s great that this information is available to everyone. However, if the information is incorrectly interpreted and managed, it’ll only generate a lot of anxiety. It can also make the intervention more difficult because the Internet provides “evidence” to a person with hypochondriasis and convinces them that their issues are real. They don’t believe that it’s only the result of their anxiety.

How to help someone with hypochondria

We’ve all been hypochondriacs at one point or another, to varying degrees. It’s somewhat of a running joke now that, if you Google any symptom you’re having, you’ll end up thinking you have cancer. However, true hypochondriacs, however, aren’t easily dissuaded. Even the opinion of a medical professional isn’t enough to convince them that nothing’s wrong. The individual is so convinced that they have a serious illness that negative test results and medical opinions do nothing to calm their anxiety.

That being said, some strategies can help a person with hypochondria.

Validate their experience

This is one of the most important points. People with hypochondria often find themselves unable to talk about their symptoms and fears.

Consequently, validating their experience means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. You have to try to understand how they might feel under the circumstances. Try to see things through their eyes and understand the world from their perspective. It isn0t easy, and if you aren’t intentional about it you’ll end up doing the opposite. The following phrases, while often true, won’t help decrease a hypochondriac’s anxiety:

  • “That’s nothing.”
  • “The doctor is going to tell you that it’s nothing, you’ll see.”
  • “My dad actually had that illness. If you really had it, you wouldn’t be doing this well.”
  • “If the doctor already told you you’re fine, why do you want to go again?”

Keep some distance from the cycle of complaints

In other words, don’t get involved in the patient’s complaints. People with hypochondria often seek reassurance from those around them. They need to hear other people tell them that they’re going to be fine or that their imaginary illness has a good prognosis.

The relief that this provides, however, is very short-lived. It won’t be long before they come to you again for reassurance, and you end up in a dangerous cycle.

Develop alternatives to reassurance-seeking behavior

One way to help someone with hypochondria is to help them find activities that they enjoy and are incompatible with the self-exploration.

Physical exercise can actually be a stressor at first because it might trigger “symptoms” that add to all the “evidence” they’re collecting about their illness and fears.

However, after they do some kind of exercise that’s appropriate for their physical condition, a feeling of well-being predominates. That makes it harder for them to focus on their complaints.

A woman trying to help someone with hypochondria.

Encourage them to get help

If you know someone with hypochondria, they may need more help than you can give them. If you’re trying to deal with it all on your own, you might run out of patience and energy pretty quickly. We don’t recommend letting things get to this point. Instead, encourage your loved one to seek professional psychological help as soon as possible. If you haven’t done it yet and you’re feeling burnt out, don’t wait any longer!

An individual with hypochondria will probably be hesitant to take that step because it feels like investing time and energy into something that isn’t the cause of their problem. One strategy to convince them, then, is to present it as a way to deal with their anxiety and not even mention hypochondria, even if you think that’s the true cause of their problems.

Martínez, M. P., Belloch, A., Botella, C. y Pascual, L. M. (2000). Tratamiento de la hipocondría: análisis de las variables predictoras del cambio. Comunicación presentada en XXX Congress of the European Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Therapies. Granada

Martínez, M. P. y Botella, C. (2004). Evaluation of the efficacy of a cognitive-behavioural treatment for hypochondriasis using different measures of change. Manuscrito sometido a publicación

Pauli, P., Schwenzer, M., Brody, S., Rau, H. y Birbaumer, N. (1993). Hypochondriacal attitudes, pain sensitivity, and attentional bias. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 37, 745-752.

Warwick, H. M. C. y Salkovskis, P. M. (1989). Hypochondriasis. En J. Scott, J. M. G. Williams y A. T. Beck (Eds.), Cognitive therapy in clinical practice: An illustrative casebook (pp. 78-102). Londres: Routledge