Hypochondria is a disorder marked by the persistent and misguided belief that you have serious health problems when no such problems are present. At times, the physical symptoms that are present are caused by your own mind - this is characteristic of a different but related disorder, called somatization. In either case, hypochondria is a complex disorder – one that has many causes – and we explore those causes in this article.
Note: the official name for this condition has changed from hypochondria to ‘Illness Anxiety Disorder’. Furthermore, this disorder is no longer technically classified as an anxiety disorder. Nonetheless, there is a fair amount of overlap between this condition and the symptoms of anxiety. Read on to learn more.
Causes of Hypochondria
Hypochondria can be serious for a lot of people. But what causes it isn't entirely known.
If someone with this condition also experiences frequent panic attacks, they might qualify for a diagnosis of panic disorder. At times, a person may receive both diagnoses - these disorders are closely interlinked (see the 2005 paper referenced below for more information). This condition is caused by an oversensitivity to the way a person feels, combined with serious panic attacks that mimic terrible diseases – all leading to the person feeling as though something must be wrong with their health. Even generalized anxiety disorder can cause these types of issues. Do panic attacks cause hypochondria? We don’t know this for sure, but the two phenomena are definitely closely interlinked.
Other potential causes for hypochondria are listed below.
- A History of Physical and/or Sexual Abuse Observing or experiencing physical and sexual abuse, particularly as a child, can result in a heightened sense of physical vulnerability. This may lead a person to suspect serious health issues when they are not present. A history of abuse can also lead a person to feel a sense of insecurity in their interpersonal attachments, which causes them to engage in compensatory care-seeking behavior.
- Google Syndrome Search engines may contribute to hypochondria. People Google weird feelings/experiences that they have, and find that they're linked to serious diseases. They then start to believe they may have a bad disease, and this type of behavior is reinforced.
- Serious Illnesses or Deaths of Family Members or Friends Seriously ill family members or friends can create an environment, for a child especially, where love and attention are directly linked to the illness. Observing this, the child may assume that they need to be ill to deserve love and attention, and continue to hold this belief unconsciously even into adulthood. When a close family member or friend dies, at any point in a person’s life, the shock and grief related to the death can easily trigger fear and obsessive concerns about one’s own health.
- Difficulty in Expressing Emotions Some people experience difficulties in expressing their emotions. This could be due to the way they were raised or to traumatic past experiences that caused them to distance themselves emotionally from others. Such people may find that the only way to connect emotionally with others is to provoke concern in them regarding potential health problems. A person who does this may not even realize they are doing it, apart from being aware on some level, perhaps even subconsciously, that being sick and having people worry about them makes them feel better.
- A Hypochondriacal or Overly Protective Parental Figure Learned behavior from a hypochondriacal caregiver is a potential cause of hypochondria. Behaviors taught to a person during childhood are likely to persist into adulthood by helping to form their beliefs about the world around them. A child with a hypochondriac as a caregiver is likely to believe that it is healthy to constantly question one’s health, and that a primary feature of the world around them is that it is a highly dangerous and unhealthy place. An overly protective caregiver instills many of the same principles into a person during childhood, while also teaching them the notion that people who care about them ought to worry constantly about their health and be highly receptive to their health complaints, even when they are minor.
Learning the specifics of the cause behind a person’s hypochondria is the first step towards addressing their core beliefs about why illness “needs” to be a part of their life and cultivating healthier beliefs to replace them, so that eventually they can be healthy, happy, and even happy to be healthy.