A Guide To Understanding Hypochondria And OCD

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We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is health anxiety?

Health anxiety, also known as hypochondriasis,¹ is an anxiety disorder. It occurs when you fear you have a severe illness due to physical signs or symptoms. You may also constantly worry about getting ill and how you can prevent it.

People with health anxiety tend to catastrophize their symptoms, so you may think of the worst possible outcome. 

It is common for people who have health anxiety to seek out the opinion of a professional healthcare provider. Still, even a thorough evaluation by a physician won’t provide reassurance for long. While you may not feel as anxious after visiting a doctor, your fear and anxiety will often resume in as little as a few hours or days.

Symptoms of health anxiety

The symptoms of health anxiety can vary significantly between people who experience it. However, people with the condition often have common concerns. 

Obsessions that are often associated with health anxiety include:

  • Believing a headache is a sign of a brain tumor

  • Thinking that a cough means you have lung cancer

  • Assuming their chest pain is a sign of a heart attack

  • Worrying that a sore is a symptom of AIDS

Compulsions that are often associated with health anxiety include:

  • Visiting multiple doctors on the same day

  • Undergoing numerous medical tests, often for the same condition

  • Repeatedly checking for physical symptoms of an alleged condition

  • Repeatedly avoiding particular objects or circumstances out of fear of getting sick

  • Searching the internet extensively for information on diseases and your symptoms

Is health anxiety a form of OCD?

Health anxiety is a disorder that's distinct from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If you have OCD, you experience unwanted, recurring thoughts. These uncontrollable thoughts cause significant distress or anxiety, also known as obsessions. 

As a result, you perform repetitive behaviors in an attempt to make these thoughts stop and reduce your anxiety, also known as compulsions. It's common for these obsessions and compulsions to involve a particular theme, such as harming yourself or others, having an unusual preoccupation with symmetry or organization, or religion.

How health anxiety and OCD differ

Although health anxiety and OCD are similar in many ways, distinct differences distinguish one disorder from another. These include:

Focusing on obsessions vs. particular concerns

The primary difference between health anxiety and OCD is what you’re focusing on. If you have health anxiety, you experience obsession-like concerns connected to your health. These concerns usually involve developing a chronic illness, such as cancer. On the other hand, if you have OCD, you’ll experience obsessions connected to specific themes, such as sexuality, religion, violence, or contamination.

A preoccupation with physical sensations

It's common for people with health anxiety to be preoccupied with physical symptoms ranging from vague to very specific. It's less common for people with OCD to be preoccupied with physical sensations.

Seeking medical vs. psychological help

People with OCD are more likely to seek help from a mental health professional to manage their significant anxiety. In contrast, people with health anxiety are more likely to seek medical assistance. You may have difficulty believing your problem is psychological rather than physical.

Self-awareness and insight

It's common for people with OCD to seek psychological help after recognizing their symptoms. On the contrary, people with health anxiety rarely know that their fears are irrational. Because of this, their medical provider must often refer them to a psychologist. 

How health anxiety and OCD are similar

Despite their differences, health anxiety and OCD share some similarities. These include:

Attempting to reduce anxiety

People with OCD use compulsive behaviors or rituals, such as hand washing, counting, or checking, to reduce unwanted thoughts and anxiety. Likewise, people with hypochondria will attempt to reduce their health anxiety by checking their blood pressure or seeking reassurance from doctors, family, and friends. 

Impacting relationships, routine, and work

If you experience health anxiety or OCD, it's common for your anxiety to be so significant that it negatively impacts your relationships, routine daily activities, and work. 

Using safety behaviors

With OCD or health anxiety, you will use particular safety behaviors, such as seeking reassurance or checking, to prevent your fears from coming true. Because the safety behaviors bring you a temporary sense of relief, you will often use them repeatedly.

Ironically, safety behaviors enable the anxiety you’re trying to prevent. They stop you from new experiences that could disprove your unrealistic concerns. 

The lowdown

Health anxiety and OCD are two mental health disorders that share commonalities. You may use compulsive or safety behaviors to reduce anxiety, but they enable the anxiety and prevent recovery. These conditions negatively impact your relationships, daily activities, and profession. 

While these conditions are similar in many ways, they are unrelated, separate disorders. Health anxiety causes preoccupation with the fear of illness, leading you to seek reassurance from medical professionals. OCD occurs when you experience unwanted thoughts, often related to sexuality, religion, violence, or contamination. These thoughts cause intense distress and repetitive behaviors. 

Luckily, there is help available for both conditions. Speak to your doctor about the symptoms you’re dealing with, and they will refer you for treatment.

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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