How can I help a hypochondriac friend

How to become a hypochondriac

The serious illness of a loved one can be a trigger. You start to worry about your own health, after all your thoughts only revolve around having a heart attack or getting cancer. Although only a small percentage of the population develops what is known as hypochondria, celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Harald Schmidt and Thomas Mann have given the "imaginary patient" a face.

Hypochondriacs are often viewed as exaggeratedly sensitive or busy people who want to attract attention with their fear. In fact, it is a serious mental disorder. "Hypochondria is a very stressful disease, even if those affected are mostly aware that they are 'exaggerating'", says Klaus Schulte, psychotherapist from Vienna and teaching therapist for dynamic group psychotherapy in the Austrian Working Group for Group Therapy and Group Dynamics (ÖAGG).

In the international classification of the World Health Organization, the ICD-11, hypochondria falls under the obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder. This means that those affected are convinced that they have a serious physical illness for a period of at least six months, even if repeated examinations have not provided sufficient explanation. From a medical point of view, the symptoms are usually relatively harmless - the most common are hyperventilation, palpitations, unspecific pain or digestive problems. "But the perception is valid, and it is different," emphasizes Schulte.

Great suffering

In the perception and evaluation of one's own situation, factors such as self-reference or previous experience can play a role. Often one's own body is experienced as a presumed enemy. "Then every unspecific perception becomes a possible illness. That means: the enemy lives in me," says Schulte. Even those who have seen their own mother die of cancer, for example, are emotionally burdened. "The derogatory attitude of society towards hypochondria usually results from the fact that the individual background is not known," explains Schulte.

In a hypochondriac disorder, the body reacts to the anxiety situation by increasing stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate. This uncomfortable condition causes great distress and can lead to panic. The result: the hypochondriac goes to the doctor, who certifies that he is completely healthy - but the results are not believed. It is not uncommon for those affected to go from doctor to doctor for years.

If the hypochondriac finally goes to psychiatric treatment, the diagnosis "hypochondriac disorder" is made on the basis of a detailed anamnesis and a specific personality test. Understanding the patient's learning history is important for treatment. "Because we assume that the symptoms are an attempt to solve a more serious problem," says psychotherapist Schulte.

Distraction from other stress

Often the hypochondria refers to another very stressful topic. "People work very symbolically, we also use our body as a symbol," explains the expert. For example, hypochondria can be caused by strong feelings of guilt or the feeling of being threatened by a close caregiver. Because those affected cannot bear to visualize their situation, they direct the negative feelings towards their own bodies.

Hypochondriacs are particularly afraid of suffering from life-threatening diseases such as cancer or heart problems. The stomach, chest and stomach areas are also sensitive, as they are strongly connected to the emotional life. "In the case of people who are emotionally stressed, there is a high probability that their mental well-being is also reflected in the abdominal area," says Schulte.

He advocates taking the mental disorder seriously. Those affected have no choice, the body perceptions and fears are real. He recommends that family members discuss the problem. "For example, you can ask where your worries come from or tell how you deal with strange sensitivities yourself." It is about exchanging personal coping strategies and thus picking up people in their experience.

Good prospect of recovery

Treatment of hypochondria is carried out in individual or group therapies, depending on the situation. The exchange with other affected persons is often a great relief. Those who get to know the background of their fears see more clearly and can better understand their own situation. This helps to sort out attitudes and feelings and to solve the stressful problems. "The aim of the discussions is that the patient is again in harmony with himself, his body, his feelings and ultimately with his life," explains Schulte.

In addition to increasing the quality of life, anxiety disorders and depression are also prevented with the help of psychotherapeutically guided conversations. Experience has shown that a significant improvement is noticeable or at least noticeable after three to six months. "With hypochondria and symptoms of comparable severity, a significant improvement can be expected within a year in most cases," the psychotherapist knows from experience. (Maria Kapeller, July 11, 2018)