Before I begin explaining what an illness anxiety disorder is, let me give you an example. An incident that took place with Adam. Adam woke up this particular morning thinking that it was any other regular day. He soon realized that it wasn’t. When Adam woke up, he felt a slight itch on his arm and when he looked at the spot, he noticed a rash there which wasn’t present when he dozed off last night. He started to think about possible reasons for his rash, anything that could have caused it, only he came up empty, so he tried to put it on the back of his mind and got to his morning routine. As the day passed, he could not get his mind off the rash, its redness, its causes, its consequences, its disorders that he might contact, and was growing more anxious by the minute. Then he did something that each one of us would do in a situation like this. That’s right. He opened google and typed “red rash on arm”, Google being Google gave multiple possible answers like lesions, allergies, and so on. Adam started panicking, physically sweating, and thinking of what he might develop due to the rash, he went deeper and started clicking on multiple sites, reading multiple articles, multiple disorders, and then he finally came to a conclusion. A very appropriate and plausible one in his mind. He might have gotten skin cancer. And he immediately makes a doctor appointment to get his diagnosis confirmed. Seems fair? Seems fair.
But the real reason he had the rash was because of a bug that bit him which he failed to notice on his bed. So, it would have disappeared in a few days without him even doing anything about it. Okay, so going back to the topic at hand.
Now, what exactly is Illness Anxiety Disorder? It is a feeling of extreme anxiousness and incessant worry about possibly developing a major illness because of a physical symptom(s). These outcomes that the person comes up with, in his frenzy thoughts, are always the worst-case scenarios and the person is overthinking about its ill effects and his health conditions, despite there not being any physiological proof to support the thoughts and anxiety. Most of the time, any somatic (physical) illness is absent when diagnosed by a physician or a doctor. Even if any somatic disorder is present, it is almost always mild and nothing severe. Illness Anxiety Disorder was earlier known as Hypochondriasis but was later renamed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) due to the word’s negative implications.
Dr. R.K. Suri, best clinical psychologist in west Delhi says, DSM–5 has listed six criteria to diagnose a person with Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD). One of its criteria is that the person with IAD could be overly concerned about health with constant visits to hospitals, repeated checks, and continuous diagnosis of self and body actions. Or the person could show maladaptive behavior where he completely avoids any hospital visitations. One more criterion is that the person should show a preoccupation towards an illness for 6 months with varying or the same symptoms. Here you can see why I told you about Adam. He was preoccupied with the effects of his rash, his skin cancer, his anxiety, his excessive thoughts about a physical illness that he might develop, instead of looking at it as just a rash which basically had no underlying physical disorders. It is a rash today and it is a lump for them tomorrow, hence, if a person is showing signs of unwarranted worry, thinking excessively about his health and being anxious about any or every change that he sees in or on his body, for over a period of six months or more, the person is then diagnosed with Illness Anxiety Disorder.
Illness Anxiety Disorder should not be confused with Somatic Symptom Disorder (SSD) because even though both show a significant number of similarities, a person with SSD lacks the symptoms of anxiety disorder that is seen in IAD and will always have a somatic illness associated with the symptoms.
There aren’t any definitive causes for this disorder. But these classes of disorders have their roots in psychoanalysis concepts given by Freud, Janet. These causes could be overprotective parents who attributed any minute illness like a prevalent cold or a mild pain, heightened importance, rushing them to doctors each time. On the other spectrum, it could be rejectionive parents where they failed to pay attention to symptoms of the child that progressed to a major illness, which then transformed as fear and adopting a kind of defense mechanism where the person begins to excessively worry about his health. The presence of a constantly falling sick family member while growing up could additionally be one of the reasons or it could be any individual experiences with an illness, self or others, or something seen in the media which might have adversely affected the person’s attitude towards illnesses and symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has shown a tremendously positive response in treating persons with Illness Anxiety Disorder. Do not hesitate in seeking professional help if you are facing any mental health issues.
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