WebMD Generation: Why Some Healthy People Are Convinced They're Sick

by Dan Scotti

I’ve always considered myself a hypochondriac (yeah, I know, really shooting for the stars over here).

I’m serious, though. For the better portion of my time spent growing up, I was like the Dr. Kevorkian of falsely diagnosing myself with various illnesses via WebMD.

Stomach pains... and bloating… peptic ulcers. Headache? Sore throat? Maaaa, I can’t go to school today, it’s meningitis.

I mean, every time I saw a f*cking sweat pimple, I was preparing for the onset of smallpox.

As I’m sure you could gather, I was just a neurotic little runt of a child and never actually had any life-threatening illnesses, although that didn’t stop me from thinking I did.

But that’s the nature of hypochondria as a whole. In consonance with Stephen Heath, a professor at the University of Cambridge, “the hypochondriac may be in good health, but remains tormented by supposed symptoms and the certainty of the illnesses to which they point.”

And that’s one of the most common misconceptions about what hypochondria truly is.

Many will use the term interchangeably with words like “worrier,” for instance, and a lot of people get labeled as “hypochondriacs” because they’re overly concerned with things like “beating traffic” or running on the same treadmill every day.

Hypochondria refers solely to the fear of having some serious illness, typically after a medical physician has already ruled it out prior; it’s not synonymous with regular ol’ paranoia, at least not in the technical sense.

See, for most paranoid (or neurotic) people, they’re such a way, deliberately – because they’re comfortable being extra wary about certain dangers – without considering how ridiculous they might appear to others.

Hypochondriacs, on the other hand, do not behave the way they do because they want to, whatsoever.

According to Mark Tyrrell, a therapist and cofounder of the blog Uncommon Knowledge, “the paradox of hypochondria is that the sufferer often knows they are a hypochondriac even whilst maintaining they are justified in believing they are ill.”

This is something he refers to as a psychological “catch 22,” which, as I’m sure you can imagine, can become utterly detrimental to one's psyche.

On the one hand, hypochondriacs know that they have a tendency to worry irrationally, yet, on the other hand, they will worry nonetheless.

Well, I’ve put together a few important points regarding the disorder to provide people with a better understanding on hypochondria.

Hopefully, people can gain some peace of mind on the subject with a better understanding.

Also, if you’re a hypochondriac, keep in mind you're not alone – if you need reassurance, there's always a “Seinfeld” rerun on TV or a Woody Allen quote to comfort you.

Hypochondria is not a permanent disorder.

Most people, who confuse hypochondria for a personality trait, rather than a state of mind, fail to acknowledge the true span of its impact on a person.

Personality traits, such as neuroticism, tend to exist in people for the entire length of their lives – for instance, neurotic children tend to grow up and become neurotic adults.

Hypochondria, on the other hand, has no concrete duration. According to Christian Nordqvist of Medical News Today, depending on the person who’s experiencing the hypochondriasis, he or she could suffer for weeks, months or even multiple years.

Nordqvist goes on to report that “approximately 30 percent of hypochondriacs eventually improve significantly,” so if you have experienced bouts of hypochondria in the past – don’t worry, it can get better.

It’s “sort of” hereditary.

The subject of whether or not hypochondria is hereditary is something of a grey area.

While certain family studies on the topic have shown no direct genetic transmission of the disorder, research also suggests hypochondria does, in fact, run in families, according to Tyrrell.

One of the most famous family studies conducted on hypochondria was led by researchers at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine Noyes, Holt, Happel, Kathol and Yagla, all of whom Tyrrell cited in his article.

Their results showed that – although hypochondriasis, itself, isn’t passed down from one generation to the next – somatization disorder and generalized anxiety were more common among families with hypochondriacs.

These findings suggest that, “hypochondriasis may not be an independent disorder, but a variable feature of other psychopathology, one that may include somatization disorder.”

Tyrrell also states that “family members 'teach' each other attitudes (or 'memes'), which then get passed on again.”

Therefore, aside from any genetic relationship, a lot of the same attitudes and behaviors (of hypochondria) will get passed on regardless.

It can be treated.

Although it might not appear effective at first, there is treatment for hypochondria.

One efficient – and simple – way of combatting hypochondria is by relaxing, which may seem difficult for the hypochondriac when facing the disorder; most of the time his or her emotions will take the wheel and begin to steer his or her thoughts.

According to Tyrrell, “the more you relax, the less your imagination will need to conjure up stuff to give shape to anxieties.”

He continues to advise hypochondriacs to stay away from self-diagnosis – the same type of self-diagnosis I used to engage in – as a young buck surfing around WebMD.

If none of these techniques can settle your nerves, there are more robust means to treating your hypochondria.

According to Medical News Today, “recent studies have demonstrated that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI), such as fluoxetine and paroxetine, are effective in treating [hypochondria].”