Hypochondria and Coronavirus: Symptoms and Treatment

27 May, 2020
What's hypochondria? How might the pandemic be affecting people who suffer from it? It's important to know how to act in order to help them and prevent confinement from aggravating the symptoms of their disorder. In this article, we'll be analyzing the relationship between hypochondria and coronavirus.

The coronavirus crisis has caused fear, anxiety, and uncertainty in the general population. However, a group of people is especially susceptible if anxiety and fear of contagion are involved. In this article, we’ll talk about the relationship between hypochondria and coronavirus.

Below, we discuss the main symptoms of hypochondria and review some guidelines that can help both the person who suffers from it and those who live with a hypochondriac. We’ll also analyze the link between hypochondria and coronavirus.

Hypochondria and coronavirus.

The link between hypochondria and coronavirus

The symptomatology of hypochondria (now called “illness anxiety disorder”) consists of the worry, fear, or conviction of having a serious undiagnosed illness based on a misinterpretation of physical sensations.

Here are the characteristics of a hypochondriac:

  • Normal physiological sensations, somatic reactions triggered by emotional states, or benign dysfunctions are often believed to be a threat to their health. An example may be the interpretation of mild dyspnea (after climbing stairs quickly, for example) as a symptom of coronavirus.
  • In addition to extremely negative thoughts about the symptoms, it’s common for the person to have mental images related to the disease. For example, they may imagine themselves in an ICU.
  • They spend a lot of time examining themselves and checking how their body is functioning. They’re overly vigilant for signs of illness. For example, they check their temperature every hour or check to see if their lung capacity has decreased.
  • Concern is at the heart of these people’s lives. They avoid normal activities out of fear of contagion. For example, they refuse to sit on the same couch as the rest of their family and all they do is talk about COVID-19.
  • This disorder is often associated with doctor shopping, which can result in repeated calls to coronavirus hotlines. Also, it’s associated with compulsively searching for symptoms of the disease on the Internet.
  • However, there’s another side to this. They may actually refuse medical care out of fear of confirmation of the disease. People with hypochondria also tend to have high anxiety levels and may have somatic symptoms.

Who’s affected and how does it progress?

Hypochondria affects between 1% and 5% of the general population, although this percentage is slightly higher in those who are actually ill (2-7%). This disorder doesn’t distinguish between genders, meaning it affects women and men equally. Although it can manifest at any age, it usually does so in adulthood, around the ages of 30 to 40.

The progression of the disorder is usually chronic and rarely remits completely. Symptoms often fluctuate. During some periods, the symptoms are minimal. However, during others, the symptoms worsen.

How do you “become” a hypochondriac?

There are several explanations for how people become hypochondriacs. In this article, we’re going to analyze the most important current theories.

From the cognitive-perceptual perspective, experts address hypochondria as a manifestation of an alteration at the cognitive or perceptive level. Based on this, they elaborated several hypotheses:

  • Barsky and Klerman explained that hypochondriacal subjects have an attentional style characterized by the amplification of body signals. This leads to hypervigilance of unpleasant body signals, selective attention to mild symptoms, and a tendency to assess normal sensations as abnormal.
  • Keller explains that, on one hand, certain early experiences predispose people to pay excessive attention to somatic symptoms. On the other hand, certain factors act as precipitants. They concluded that learning these types of behavior early on may increase the risk of developing hypochondria.
  • Warwick and Salkovskis developed a model that explains how experiences with illness lead to the formation of dysfunctional health beliefs. These beliefs remain dormant until a critical event triggers the emergence of automatic negative thoughts. This leads to selective attention to symptoms and increased anxiety.

From the psychosocial perspective, experts believe that hypochondria is a particular type of communication. They argue that hypochondriacs have communication deficits and express themselves through their symptoms.

What can you do if you suffer from hypochondria?

It’s crucial for you to seek psychological help to discover better ways to deal with your anxiety, fear, and negative thoughts.

Here are some guidelines that may serve as an initial aid:

  • Be aware of the problem and analyze your experience and the factors that trigger hypochondriacal thoughts.
  • Change the focus of your attention. You can learn meditation techniques that will help you stay in the “here and now”.
  • Avoid constantly reading news about the pandemic or looking up information about the symptoms online.
  • Don’t let your whole life revolve around the problem.
  • Make positive thinking your best weapon.
  • Don’t let negative and catastrophic thoughts dominate you.
  • Look for alternative explanations that can explain your symptoms.
  • Avoid the white bear problem. This effect states that if you try to avoid thinking about a white bear, it’ll be impossible for you to stop thinking about it. The same goes for symptoms.
  • Don’t feel guilty.
  • Avoid over-dramatization. Remember that you’re feeling somatic sensations triggered by negative emotions. Although they’re bothersome, they aren’t dangerous and will eventually go away.
  • Evaluate your progress and reward yourself.
A counselling session.

How can you help someone who suffers from hypochondria?

If you know someone who’s a hypochondriac, here are some practical ways to help them:

  • Be empathetic, patient, and non-judgmental. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine the fear they may be feeling because they believe they have a disease (coronavirus, in this case).
  • Encourage them to seek psychological help.
  • Don’t reinforce their hypochondriacal concerns.
  • Avoid overprotecting them.
  • If they’re scared to go to a medical check-up and you can’t go with then due to the confinement, try to help them stay calm.
  • Don’t give in to their desire to go to the doctor again “just to make sure” or to repeatedly call the coronavirus hotline. Doing so will reduce their anxiety in the short term but will maintain the problem in the long term.
  • Help them to focus on positive thoughts.
  • Encourage them to look for positive distractions.
  • Help them reward small advances.

Hypochondria is difficult to manage, as it’s often associated with anxiety disorders. The mix of hypochondria and coronavirus puts people in a situation they aren’t used to and predisposes them to anxiety symptoms.

The confinement and the context of the pandemic may aggravate the symptoms of people with hypochondria. Although the above guidelines may help, they aren’t a solution to the problem. The best approach is to seek specialized treatment or to continue with existing treatment once the lockdown ends.

Caballo, V. E., Salazar, I. C., & Carrobles, J. A. I. (2014). Manual de psicopatología y trastornos psicológicos. Pirámide.

Diagnóstico, M. (2002). Estadístico de los Trastornos Mentales DSM-IV-TR. AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASSOCIATION (APA).

American Psychiatric Association. (2014). Guía de consulta de los criterios diagnósticos del DSM-5®: Spanish Edition of the Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria From DSM-5®. American Psychiatric Pub.