"I've got that, too!": Do I have hypochondria?

Originally Published: October 6, 2006 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 6, 2011
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Dear Alice,

I've always been something of a hypochondriac, although my friends and family know nothing about it. As a child, I would regularly convince myself that I had appendicitis. As a teenager, I worried about being pregnant despite never having had vaginal intercourse. As a college student, I worked in a hospice for late-stage AIDS patients. Although I never had contact with blood or semen, I convinced myself that I may have contracted HIV somehow by doing their laundry with some kind of minor cuts on my hands I never noticed, or because a patient drooled on my hands. I've been tested at least three times since then, but I still haven't gotten over it and am nervously preoccupied with the idea that I have infected the whole two people that I've ever slept with. At the moment, I'm also convinced I have cancer. I *know* I'm completely wrong about all of this... I know, I know. And get this: I'm in medical school now. It's only going to get worse. Help me!

Dear Reader,

For a long time, you've felt like something's up despite what health care providers and lab tests tell you. This is really starting to get to you, and now you're in medical school, finding it hard to get over these thoughts even though you know they aren't legit. One thing to consider is that people with hypochondria really believe that they're sick. You, on the other hand, show that you understand that these beliefs are false.

Hypochondria is a mental illness marked by a preoccupation with fear or belief that one has a serious medical illness. This preoccupation seems to come from misinterpretation of bodily cues. People with hypochondria believe they have a major medical illness because they experience a symptom, or symptoms, of minor illness. Often, people with hypochondria believe that good health can only exist in the absence of any symptoms. These beliefs can lead them to seek out medical care and testing they don't actually need.

After intense medical work-ups and consultations, health care providers may refer people with hypochondria to psychologists. Psychologists consider how people's beliefs, feelings, and behaviors connect to their actual and perceived health conditions. By doing this, they can better determine whether a person may be experiencing hypochondria. Treatment usually involves working to reframe beliefs and feelings to develop more realistic interpretations and expectations of symptoms and general health. Also, some medications may be used to help with underlying mood or anxiety disorders.

While it's definitely crucial to work with health care providers to rule out any actual medical illnesses, it's also helpful to admit when your mind may be playing tricks on you. How would you feel about talking with a mental health provider after ruling out medical illnesses? If you're a medical student at Columbia, check out Columbia University Medical Center Student Health Service - Mental Health Appointments for more information on making an appointment. If you aren't a Columbia student, your school health system or health insurance company should be able to point you in the direction of a mental health professional.

The mind exerts powerful force on the body. Some say the mind and body are one in the same. Hopefully you'll get the help you need by working with professionals who are trained to understand this complex connection.

Best to you,

Alice