Have you ever known someone who was sick virtually all the time? Not REALLY sick…such as an illness caused by a life threatening disease such as cancer or kidney failure …but someone who spends most of his or her life in bed complaining of unspecific symptoms? It could be a headache…or a backache….or a sore thumb….or heart palpitations. It could manifest as allergies or cold symptoms or low energy or even a mild fever. This is what is known as Somatic Symptom Disorder or Hypochondria. These people are often anxiety ridden, fearful, angry or all three, and they do not know how to remedy their situations, so they take to their beds with virtually every symptom under the sun. The illnesses and symptoms frequently shift from one thing to another, all in the name of avoiding something in their lives that is unpleasant…whether past, present or fear of something in the future.
While the symptoms of Hypochondria are not, in and of themselves, dangerous, convincing oneself of an illness that doesn’t exist can actually lead to that or other diseases occurring. A study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, suggests that the anxiety associated with Somatic Symptom Disorder can actually lead to the physical manifestation of the malady being imagined.
What causes Somatic Symptom Disorder? Well….There are many causes, and many of them go hand-in-hand. For example the person in a bad relationship where there is physical violence, verbal abuse, threats, public humiliation, embarrassment can fit into several different categories and can manifest the symptoms of Hypochondria in various ways.
Here are some of the causes:
- A History of Physical and/or Sexual Abuse Observing or experiencing physical and sexual abuse, particularly as a child, but also as an adult, can result in a heightened sense of physical vulnerability and lead a person to suspect serious health issues when they are not present. A history of abuse can also lead a person to feel a sense of insecurity in their interpersonal attachments, which causes them to engage in compensatory care-seeking behavior.
- A Bad Relationship Hypochondria can occur when someone is part of an abusive relationship, especially if one is does not have strong coping skills. People who have difficulty expressing their true emotions, whether it is due to the way they were raised to behave or to traumatic past experiences or fear of their current abusive situations may develop symptoms of feigned illnesses as a coping mechanism. The illnesses they manifest take them out and keep them under cover (literally) until they can feel safe again
- Unhappiness Chronically unhappy individuals can also manifest symptoms of Hypochondria to take their minds off of their problems. For instance, a person who is unhappy in her job, or the man who is hooked up with a woman he doesn’t want to be with can convince herself or himself that a true illness exists as a means of coping with his or her unhappiness.
- Serious Illnesses or Deaths of Family Members or Friends Seriously ill family members or friends can create an environment, for a child especially, where love and attention are directly linked to illness. Observing this, the child may assume that they must be ill to deserve love and attention, and continue to hold this belief subconsciously even into adulthood. When a close family member or friend dies, at any point in a person’s life, the shock and grief related to the death can easily trigger fear and obsessive concerns about personal health.
- Difficulty in Expressing Emotions People who have difficulty in expressing their emotions, whether it is due to the way they were raised to behave or to traumatic past experiences that caused them to feel “safer” at an emotional distance from other people, may find that the only way to connect emotionally with others is to provoke concern in them regarding potential health problems. A person who does this may not even realize they are doing it, apart from being aware on some level, perhaps even subconsciously, that being sick and having people worry about them makes them feel better.
- A Hypochondriacal or Overly Protective Parental Figure or Spouse Learned behavior from a hypochondriacal caregiver is a prominent cause of hypochondria. Behaviors taught to a person during childhood are likely to persist into adulthood by helping to form their beliefs about the world around them. A child with a hypochondriac as a caregiver is likely to believe that it is healthy to constantly question one’s health, and that a primary feature of the world around them is that it is a highly dangerous and unhealthy place. An overly protective caregiver instills many of the same lessons into a person during childhood, while also teaching them the notion that people who care about them ought to worry constantly about their health and be highly receptive to their health complaints, even when they are minor.
Learning the specifics of the cause behind a person’s hypochondria is the first step towards addressing their core beliefs about why illness “needs” to be a part of their life and cultivating healthier beliefs to replace them, so that eventually they can be healthy, happy, and even happy to be healthy. If that doesn’t work, antidepressants might.