Illness anxiety disorder emerges as a common concern

By Thuy Quynh   January 23, 2024 | 10:00 pm PT
Tran Thi Thanh checks her blood pressure 20 times daily due to her fear of strokes, and Minh Tam is convinced she has brain cancer, prompted by her frequent headaches.

Thanh, a 35-year-old resident of Hanoi’s Tay Ho District, is experiencing headaches, a runny nose, and occasional suffocation and palpitations. Her anxiety about stroke risk, heightened by her sister’s stroke-related death and online searches linking headaches to brain clots, persists despite normal screening tests at multiple healthcare facilities. Her ongoing worries have led to sleep loss, exhaustion, inability to concentrate, and substantial medical expenses.

Similarly, Tam, a 29-year-old from the capital’s Cau Giay District, fears a rare disease due to her headaches. Despite numerous brain scans and skin checks over six months, all showing normal results, she remains convinced of an undiagnosed illness, leaving her frustrated and distressed.

Both Thanh and Tam are among many patients at the Mai Huong Daytime Psychiatric Hospital in Hanoi, seeking treatment for their persistent illness fears.

Dr. Tran Thi Hong Thu, the hospital’s deputy director, describes them as suffering from illness anxiety disorder, or hypochondria, which is primarily characterized by an excessive fear of sickness despite minor symptoms. The prevalence of this disorder in Vietnam is not officially documented, but is observed to be high.

People with this disorder often misinterpret normal bodily sensations or minor symptoms as serious illness. They may frequently check their bodies, doubt doctors’ diagnoses, and either seek continuous medical checks or avoid them entirely. Some obsessively discuss health concerns or research online, exacerbating their anxiety.

Illness anxiety disorder, also known as hypochondria, can have a profound impact on individuals lives. Illustration photo by Freepik

Illness anxiety disorder, also known as hypochondria, can have a profound impact on individuals' lives. Illustration photo by Freepik

Thu explained that personal experiences or beliefs often play a role in the onset of illness anxiety disorder. For instance, individuals who experienced a serious illness in their childhood might develop a heightened fear of bodily sensations later in life.

"People who have previously been ill, even with mild symptoms, can develop this disorder," Thu added. "The experience can leave them with a persistent preoccupation and the belief that any bodily sensation could be a sign of a serious condition, leading them to constantly seek validation for this belief."

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in Dec. 2023 found that individuals diagnosed with hypochondria face a mortality risk that is 84% higher than those without the disorder, as they may succumb to various diseases, especially those related to the heart, blood, and lungs, as well as suicide.

Researcher David Mataix-Cols, in a report by The Washington Post, highlighted the irony of this situation: "They are excessively concerned with health and mortality, which leads to an increased risk of death."

Mataix-Cols points out that those suffering from illness anxiety disorder experience significant distress and a sense of hopelessness, which severely impacts their productivity, day-to-day functioning, financial stability, and personal relationships. Chronic anxiety may lead to inflammation and physical illnesses, or increase the risk of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

According to Thu, the primary treatment for this disorder is psychological therapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which assists patients in identifying the root causes of their symptoms and developing coping strategies. It is also effective in improving coexisting mental health conditions, such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In addition to psychological therapy, the use of medication and lifestyle adjustments are recommended. Patients are encouraged to maintain a healthy diet, which includes consuming clean and nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and fish, and avoiding processed, heavily seasoned, oily, fatty, and sugary foods. It is also crucial to limit alcohol intake, as well as the use of stimulants and tobacco.

Ensuring adequate sleep and establishing a routine of going to bed before 10 p.m. daily is advised, as it fosters a relaxed mindset and helps ward off negative thoughts and tension. Regular physical activity, about 30 minutes each day, is recommended for maintaining both mental and physical health.

Additionally, undergoing a general health check-up every six months is suggested to stay informed about any potential health issues.

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