How to overcome hypochondria
November 30, 2011 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone ever had experience with overcoming hypochondria?

My husband has been suffering with this for going on two years. It has been draining to say the least. He has near-constant anxiety about his health. He has "had" probably 100 different types of cancer. Every unexplained bump or pain sends him into a panic attack that can last for days.
He is perfectly willing to go for treatment and is aware that his level of fear about this isn't normal. He has been through CBT and it has helped a little. We have no health insurance, so this is all the harder. He is unable to take the cheap SSRIs that a lot of people use to treat OCD because he has very mild bipolar II.
I love him very much, and I just want some hope that at some point things will get better.

Any ideas or suggestions? Even an "it's going to be alright" would suffice
posted by PrettyKnitty to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
What about benzodiazepines or some other kind of fast acting anti-anxiolytics? Don't know about his existing diagnosis but cheap and worth discussing with a doctor.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:35 AM on November 30, 2011

CBT was helpful to me for a few years, and then it pretty much stopped being useful. The books below helped when CBT didn't.

This book was helpful to me for the six months when I literally thought I was dying:

Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong

This book was also helpful to me more generally:

posted by zeek321 at 6:38 AM on November 30, 2011

How is his health overall? Is he eating well? Getting enough exercise?

I've dealt with anxiety for most of my life, including some fairly acute bouts with hypochondria - it is much, much more easily managed (to the extent that I am able to put it out of my mind for long periods of time) when I'm running regularly, eating well, and getting enough sleep.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:40 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh hey, I went through a couple of years of super-intense hypochondria years ago and have (mostly) recovered. I do not take any meds, although I took Wellbutrin for one month back then and experienced a helpful placebo effect.

Yes, it was really, really horrible. And recovery took a while - I wasn't really back to baseline for about 18 months after the turning point although I felt like I was steadily getting better. I have had a couple of episodes of "OMG I have esophageal cancer, I just know it" since then, of varying severity.

1. At the time, I was really really depressed. I had a job I really hated that was the absolute opposite of what I was good at. I quit, took a part-time job and lived off that and savings for about six months, then temped for a while at more bearable jobs, then got a real job that I liked. This was part of lifting the depression and ending the hypochondria.

2. I got exercise and enough sun. The part time job involved walking outside every day. I also started riding my bike a bit more. Exercise really, really helps keep me stable. If your partner spends a lot of time lying in bed, even switching to sitting helps. If sitting, switch to some light walking - to the store, around the block. Etc, etc.

3. I avoided medical information - no more searching for symptoms on the internet. No more reading patient accounts. No more figuring out which treatment I should have for my disease of the month. I repeated to myself that if I DID have a grave disease, it would become apparent soon enough and I would deal with it then. The job I quit involved working with medical information - all of it bad, none of it "and then they recovered!"

4. I realized that I always have to have an obsession, and it can be healthy or....not. Like, seriously, I am always hung up on some project - finding the perfect pair of shoes, or the best possible bike route, or the ultimate vegan cheesy sauce, or every single thing on the internet about my current favorite author, etc etc. I try to steer my obsessions so that they're productive and not "let's read the Cleveland Clinic website for hours".

5. I distracted myself a lot via my job (it involved a lot of human interaction - it's hard to think about how you'll be dead of SERIOUS THING in six months when you have to be talking to people all the time).

6. Also, I moved from a dark, horrible, filthy apartment to a nicer, light-filled one that cost a little more but not much - an extra $100/month. If your living situation is physically horrible, can you either move or rearrange things?

On a "thinking about illnesses" level, I had an a-ha moment (that reinforced the other stuff) in which I realized that actually, LOTS of MINOR illnesses have some of the same symptoms as terrible, serious ones. I had this terrible anxiety about [neurological condition] and had convinced myself via selective internet searches that [my symptom, which was a bit unusual] could only be caused by [disease]. Realizing that this was not the case was huge for me because it broke the pattern.

What was your husband's life like before the hypochondria got so bad? What can he bring back into his life from that time to help stabilize him?

Exercise, better nutrition, more light, distraction, no medical information at ALL and interrupting the "OMG I am going to DIE" thought process. Also, trying to change any really horrible large problem he is facing - awful job, awful commute, bad family relations...even creating an plan with small actions can help if he can't just get another job or whatever.

It took a long time, but once I started getting better it was obvious.
posted by Frowner at 6:44 AM on November 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

It's going to be alright. Have him see a psychiatrist as well as a psychologist. A psychiatrist can help you navigate through the many different drugs available. His co-diagnoses should not exclude him from getting on medication that may help.

In the meantime, block all health info related websites. I'd bet a dollar he drives himself crazy researching symptoms online or calling disease-related hotlines. This is the fuel of anxiety train. He can't know if he has one of 500 million horrifying diseases but what he DOES know is that he has anxiety and hypochondria. Getting him to think of that when he's obsessing about something is really key. Redirect the focus to what he actually has and can deal with, "this is not leuk-AIDS-ia, this is my anxiety."
posted by Katine at 6:46 AM on November 30, 2011

Maybe instead of being obsessed with diseases and symptoms, he could become obsessed with researching natural treatments for anxiety and OCD. I too suffered from these, and after 3 years of trying everything I finally got a hold on what works and what doesn't. Memail me.
posted by blargerz at 8:25 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a former hypochrondriac, from a family of hypochrondriacs, I can assure you - recovery is possible, but it does take a lifetime of patience and effort.

As many have mentioned above, there are two keys to overcoming hypochondria:
1) Do everything one can to maintain and improve one's own health: eat right(lots of veggies + water!), exercise, stretch, and get enough sleep.
2) Face down the existential terrors which compel the hypochondria in the first place.

We only fear death if we are not living right. Number 1 above is fairly straightforward, and the best place for a hypochondriac to start. Truthfully though, changing my lifestyle was not sufficient to relieve my hypochondria.

No, my hypochondria was directly related to control issues. I want to be in control, I need to be in control. However, after decades of soul searching, I realized control is an illusion. Everything is always outside of our limited powers. Rather than try to control my life, I decided to start living.

To quote Mona Simpson, "We all die in the middle of our own story." We all die with everything left undone, with all the pieces on the ground.

I no longer focus on what might go wrong. Instead, I revel in the spontaneity and freshness of life. I spend my time trying to be here, to be now, to not let time slip by without noticing the wonder of our world. If I find myself drifting off point, I have tools and techniques to bring me back to the present(notably meditation, but I also find tremendous relief from yoyos, balance toys, trampolines, etc).

In addition, to cope with any lingering fears about the dissolution of my corporal form, I spend a considerable amount of time doing death meditation. I think about my skeleton, and the organs in my body. I see how all of these systems are out of my control, how a single atom could destroy me, how what I think of as 'me' is really a carefully organized symbiosis. If there is nothing to reify, then there is nothing to deify, then there is nothing which dies.

Lastly, I breathe deep, secure in the knowledge I have done the best I can, and when death comes, it comes necessarily. Life cannot exist without death. Death is not some horror to be feared, but as much a part of life as being born. Celebrate death and living becomes effortless.
posted by satori_movement at 9:27 AM on November 30, 2011 [7 favorites]

Hope and Help for Your Nerves made a big difference for me. It was given to me by a trusted friend who had experienced anxiety and hypochondria similar to mine, which may have been part of why it was useful. The reassurance that it was possible to feel better went a long way towards snapping me out of it. I also took Celexa for about six months, in conjunction with talk therapy, and that helped quite a bit as well.

I think the major contributing factor to my own hypochondria was a fear that I couldn't trust or understand my own body. Like Satori, meditation proved useful for me. It helped me relearn the art of listening to my own body.

Good luck.
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 2:51 PM on November 30, 2011

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