Imaginary sick people? By no means. People with hypochondria feel real symptoms – and have an excessive fear of being seriously ill. This torments them so much that their lives are severely affected. Psychotherapy can help to put fears into perspective and to deal with one's own body in a more relaxed way.
Not a day goes by that Gesa (name changed) doesn't fear she has breast cancer. During palpation, she felt a lump in the right breast. Now her thoughts are constantly circling around it. Yet she is only 25 years old. Thus, the probability of breast cancer is very low. Her doctor, whom Gesa visits very often for check-ups, keeps giving her the all-clear. Then the 25-year-old is relieved for a short time, but soon the fear rises up in her again.
Like Gesa, some people have a pronounced fear of being seriously ill, called hypochondria or hypochondriacal disorder. "It is typical for hypochondria patients that even inconspicuous findings at the doctor's cannot reare them", says Birgit Lesch, psychologist at the AOK. As a result, they keep going back to the doctor's office to be examined again and again. Because many sufferers are ashamed of this, they also keep changing doctors. "Typically for Hypochondrie is that the concerning over a longer period of time durably fear to suffer from a certain heavy illness as for example from cancer. They are convinced that they are suffering from a brain tumor, lung cancer, stomach cancer or breast cancer", says Lesch. "But also severe heart disease or neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis are feared."
Radio interviews with Birgit Lesch, psychologist at AOK
Who is affected
How the disorder can be treated
Serious psychosomatic disorder
The term hypochondria has a negative connotation in society: Those affected are considered to be snivelling, conceited sick people. But they feel the symptoms very real -. Above all the excessive fear. "It is a psychosomatic disorder that must be taken seriously", emphasizes the psychologist. It is not clear how many people suffer from it. Men and women of all ages are equally affected. Hypochondria belongs to the so-called somatoform disorders – here physical complaints are felt for which there is no or no sufficient explanation by organic findings. Overlapping with depression, obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders are common.
A vicious circle of introspection and panic
It is normal to worry about one's own health from time to time. "But those affected are permanently fixated on these worries and constantly fear the worst", says Lesch. This is how they get into a vicious circle. "They therefore observe their bodies very closely and perceive bodily functions or changes particularly intensively. They evaluate these body perceptions negatively. Catastrophizing: There's a pull in my stomach – it must be a stomach ulcer! A mole – do I have skin cancer, for example? Since yesterday this headache – it is surely a brain tumor? As a result, their attention focuses more and more on the corresponding body area, they observe, feel, palpate the region, feverishly search for more information on the Internet, constantly check certain values, such as blood prere or weight. This increases the likelihood of also removing something "disturbing" and it pulls them more and more into the maelstrom of introspection and panic.
Tips for relatives
– Relatives are often annoyed, but should not dismiss the complaints, but try to understand that the affected person is really suffering. – It is important not to support the affected person in the purely physical view, for example, to advise a further visit to the doctor. – Pointing out that it may be a mental disorder can motivate people to see a psychotherapist. It is important to pay attention to the wording. One should not say: "You're imagining it." Because the sensations are real. It is about the cause of these symptoms -. To make a new assessment.
Anxious personality structure
People with a hypochondriacal disorder tend to have an anxious personality structure and a higher arousal potential. In addition, there are probably early experiences in childhood, for example that the parents themselves were very anxious and tended to dramatize physical symptoms against the background of perfectionist demands on health, according to the motto: "Health means being 100 percent free of physical complaints." Possibly they have also experienced illness and death in their family in childhood, perhaps connected with misdiagnosis. Triggers for the disorder can then be acute stress or crises, such as the loss of a person, a separation, a move or job loss. In a psychotherapy the patients learn. Patients a healthy contact to their body – here behavioral therapy has proven to be effective. They experience that there are "normal" discomforts, such as a stomach squeeze after a heavy meal, a headache with muscle tension, or an increased heartbeat with excitement, exertion, and sometimes even after coffee consumption. And that not every swelling or irregularity indicates a tumor.
In the therapy they feel to what extent attention to a certain body part or sensation can intensify the symptom. And they learn to endure the anxiety. For example, by acting out the worst case scenario in their imagination – accompanied by the therapist. A frequently agreed measure is also to refrain from constant visits to the doctor for a certain period of time. Relaxation methods can additionally help to reduce stress and develop a more relaxed relationship with the body.