Illness Anxiety Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
With the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about illness and health have been at the forefront of most people’s minds. But for some, the fear of illness goes beyond normal worry and crosses into the realm of Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD), previously known as hypochondria.
IAD is a mental health condition characterized by excessive and persistent fear of having a serious illness despite having no or only mild symptoms. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at IAD, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.
What is Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD)?
Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD) is a mental health condition in which a person has strong convictions that they suffer from a serious illness, even where there is minimal or no evidence to support the presence of an illness. People with IAD may have an obsession with their health, repeatedly checking for symptoms and seeking multiple medical opinions. They may also experience physical symptoms, such as fatigue and muscle tension, due to the psychological distress caused by the disorder.
The term hypochondria was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, partly due to the stigma linked to the condition.
Types of Illness Anxiety Disorder
Individuals with IAD can be broadly classified into two types: caregiving and care-avoidant.
- Caregiving. Care-giving IAD patients spend a lot of time in hospitals and medical institutions seeking medical tests and professional advice from healthcare providers.
- Care avoidant. Care-avoidant IAD patients spend much time avoiding medical care and healthcare providers. These individuals may not trust healthcare providers or think that people don’t take their symptoms seriously, which creates more anxiety and fear.
What is the Difference Between Illness Anxiety Disorder and Somatic Symptom Disorder?
Somatic Symptom Disorder (SSD) is another condition that is often confused with IAD. A somatic symptom disorder is a mental disorder manifesting as physical symptoms suggesting injury or illness that can’t be explained entirely by the direct effect of a substance or a general medical condition. These symptoms can’t also be related to other mental disorders. . SSD is a mental disorder that manifests as physical symptoms, such as pain, weakness, or shortness of breath, to a level that results in major distress and/or problems functioning.
Medical test results in people diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder are either normal or don’t explain the patient’s symptoms. The key difference between the two is that SSD also involves physical symptoms, whereas IAD is primarily focused on the fear of illness.
Causes and Risk Factors of Illness Anxiety Disorder
The exact causes of IAD are not fully understood, but research suggests that a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors may play a role.
These may include:
- Extreme stress. Symptoms of illness anxiety disorders tend to appear or worsen after a major stressful event in one’s life.
- Age. IAD can develop at any age. Furthermore, its symptoms come and go, but the condition typically appears first in early to middle adulthood (roughly 25-35)
- Childhood trauma such as neglect, child abuse, or a history of frequent or serious childhood illness
- IAD and other anxiety disorders in one’s family
- Conditions related to mental well-being, including feelings of anxiety and depression.
Symptoms of Illness Anxiety Disorder
Generally, symptoms associated with illness anxiety disorders include:
- Constant worrying that they have or may contract a serious health condition or illness.
- Recurring, excessive behavior, like constantly examining their bodies for symptoms of illnesses. These individuals also tend to check their blood pressure and body temperatures frequently.
- High anxiety levels about their health and health status/ body changes.
- Lack of physical symptoms to support fears or any illness or condition. However, some may have mild symptoms such as a slight heart rate increase or sweating.
- Avoidance behaviors like avoiding hospitals and healthcare providers. Some tend to avoid people or places for fear of contracting an illness.
- Worrying about the health of their loved ones
- Frequently using the internet to research symptoms
- Constantly talking about or obsessing over their health
- Always seeking reassurance from their loved ones about the symptoms and their health
- Oversharing symptoms and health status with others
- Exaggerating symptoms and their severity (for instance, they may interpret a cough as a possible sign of lung cancer).
Impact of Illness Anxiety Disorder on Daily Life and Relationships
IAD can have a significant impact on a person’s daily life and relationships. People with IAD may have difficulty holding down a job or maintaining relationships due to the time and energy they spend worrying about their health. They may also experience financial strain due to the cost of multiple medical consultations and tests. Additionally, constant worry and obsession with illness can lead to feelings of isolation and depression.
How is Illness Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?
The American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), 5th edition list the criteria for healthcare providers to diagnose illness anxiety disorders. Generally, IAD is diagnosed by a mental health professional, who will evaluate the person’s symptoms and medical history. The diagnosis is made if the person’s obsession with illness causes significant distress or impairment in daily functioning.
The healthcare provider can refer the person to a mental health professional for further analysis and diagnosis, and possibly treatment.
Illness Anxiety Disorder Treatment
Treatment for IAD typically includes cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular treatment option for IAD as it aims to change the person’s thought patterns and behaviors related to their fear of illness. The therapy focuses on identifying and challenging negative thoughts and teaching coping strategies to manage anxiety. Medication may also be used to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Another treatment option is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is a mindfulness-based therapy that helps individuals accept the uncertainty of their health condition and teaches them to focus on living a fulfilling life despite their fears.
Research has shown that a combination of CBT and medication is more effective than either treatment alone. Group therapy and support groups can also be beneficial for people with IAD as they provide a sense of community and the opportunity to connect with others who understand their experiences.
It’s important to note that recovery from IAD is possible with the right treatment and support. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that over 70% of people with IAD who received treatment experienced a significant reduction in symptoms.
Help is Available
Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD) is a serious mental health condition that can cause significant distress and impairment in daily functioning. It’s important to understand the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for IAD to manage the condition effectively. If you or a loved one is experiencing excessive fear of illness, seek the advice of a mental health professional.
Remember, people with IAD may require long-term therapy and support to manage their condition and lead a fulfilling life. This makes it critical for their family and friends to be understanding and supportive of individuals with IAD, as it can be a challenging condition to live with. With the right treatment and support, people with IAD can lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
If you’re looking for specialized treatment for IAD and other mental health concerns, consider reaching out to D’Amore Mental Health, one of Southern California’s leading residential mental health treatment facilities.