A case in point
A year ago, Rita Parikh, an event manager, experienced a burning sensation in her throat and created ghosts in her mind. She assumed that she had a major problem in her throat or stomach. She had a problem, of course: hypochondria. "A person suffering from this disease has a preoccupying fear of constant illness. It’s a state of mind," says clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Seema Hingorrany.
"It is a sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)," says Dr Minnu Bhonsle, Heart to Heart counselling centre. After being exposed to a sickness, some people often begin to suspect being stricken by illnesses at the drop of a hat. "Family history of hypochondria; psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety or personality disorders; physical, sexual or emotional abuse in childhood; a stressful past experience with your own or a loved one's illness — increase the risk factors of getting hypochondria," lists Hingorrany. Rita found the root of this psychological disorder in her childhood. She had lost her father when she was very young. Hence, she constantly feared death, which gave rise to other fears later on in life.
The growing agony
Rita was traumatised by the fear of a disease and her day-to-day activities were affected. "One's personality traits can suggest the onset of hypochondria," says Bhonsle. Hingorrany adds, "Lack of will power and low self-esteem aggravates it too.”Rita too suffered from low self-esteem which led to depression. She cut down on her daily intake of food. She was afraid she would aggravate her stomach ailment. She stopped having desserts; spice and oil were discarded from her diet. But her diet worsened her condition and she fell ill frequently.
As time passed, she became over-cautious. A boil on the face would be misconstrued for chicken pox. There were times when she would wake up in the middle of the night and worry for hours. "Hypochondriacs also tend to be over-protective of their children, because they fear that their children will end up with similar problems," says Hingorrany. Rita too would constantly advise her children on what to eat and what to avoid.
Hypochiondriacs worsen their condition by referring to journals, websites and medicating themselves. "One becomes a hypochondriac when they take to what they read in medical magazines and see on television," says Bhonsle, who feels that information on disorders and diseases must be taken in the right spirit. Rita was no different. She would constantly look up the medical dictionary and try to compare her symptoms with those mentioned. "Such people find a friend in the Google search engine and they constantly surf the web for matching symptoms," says Hingorrany. "The more you read, the more cynical you become."
The fear in a hypochondriac rises to such an extent that he/she refuses to consult a doctor. "They are afraid of being diagnosed by a deadly disease and hence resort to self-medication," confirms Hingorrany. Rita made a habit of self-medicating herself.
Hypochondriacs prefer to be silent sufferers. Rita found it tough to speak about her suffering to her family members who remained clueless about her close encounter with self-medication. She did not double check on these medications either. Rita also found it difficult to manage relationships peacefully and perform normal activities.
The way out
When her family learnt about her condition, they decided that she should seek help. That's when she came to Hingorrany who asked her to undergo a thorough check-up, to steer clear of all doubts. All the reports were normal. The only condition she was diagnosed with was hyperacidity, because of the stress she subjected herself to. She was advised to find a cure for her fear and not for her diseases. She underwent a test, which confirmed her to be a hypochondriac and she was told to alter her thoughts and undergo Rational Emotive Therapy (RET). "After hours of talk therapy, slowly, all that was discarded from Rita's diet was re-introduced and eventually she started leading a normal life," says Hingorrany.
Dr Minnu Bhonsle explains the treatment for hypochondria:
- It may be treated with sustained psychotherapies, like the Cognitive Behavioral therapy — i.e. talk therapy
- There is also the option of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT). This psychotherapy helps to find the origin of the person's irrational behaviour.
- REBT is accompanied by anti-anxiety medication which helps to calm the individual and creates a predicament more conducive for treatment. The psychotherapy and medication together, attempt to rework the individual's genetic disposition which may have caused an organic disorder like hypochondria.