Zebras and Hypochondriacs

Hypochondriacs might seem like something  out of a fairy tale. After all, who wants to find that there’s something fundamentally wrong about their health so much that they keep prodding and exaggerating any symptom real or imagined? What most of us don’t understand though is that at the base of hypochondria stands a powerful fear of sickness and death, a fear so overwhelming that it completely takes over a person’s being. Hypochondria isn’t malingering nor is it Munchhausen syndrome. Hypochondria is an affliction of the mind, a sort of anticipatory PTSD.

Hypochondriacs are often characterized through an unhealthy preoccupation with different syndromes and diseases, most of which occur under very specific circumstances. A hypochondriac who sneezes will likely assume that he or she has a rare and deadly disease like SARS rather than something more common like a cold or a flu. This is generally referred to as a ‘zebra’ diagnostic in the medical field because jumping to outrageous conclusions based on insufficient facts would be like hearing hoof beats and assuming that a zebra is nearby rather than a horse or donkey.

You can of course reassure a patient that is excessively worried by a certain condition by taking the necessary tests and sending them on their way, but what can a medical professional or family member do in the case of an extreme hypochondriac? Rare diseases are not widely tested for and therefore tests are rare and expensive.  One solution would be to send the person for their own tests.

Websites like http://www.healthtestingcenters.com/essential-health-screen.aspx offer a cheap and fast basic blood test and other general health tests that any self-respecting hypochondriac takes at least once a year but have one take an expensive or painful test for an obscure illness once or twice and they might reconsider their approach.

One of the best ways to control a hypochondriac’s phobias along with helping them stay healthy is with an annual check up. If the patient insists on a more frequent visit, once every few months or so do not allow him or her to go to the doctor more than once every three months barring emergencies (real ones) as this might veer into the realm of reinforcement rather than cure. Past 30 an annual or twice annual check-up is actually recommended for everybody and a simple blood panel and examination can ensure that the risks of developing a much more mundane disease drops significantly. Tests have also shown that anxiety is greatly reduced in hypochondriacs who have visited a physician or hospital in the last 6 months.

There are many other factors that can help reduce the anxiety and false symptoms in a hypochondriac. Some herbal supplements have been proven to work if administered before sleep.as has a steady and balanced diet. Most of all we all have to accept that hypochondria is  easily controllable if we  just choose to help people affected by it. Gently poking fun at the person’s fears, so as to make them seem less immediate or being supportive are both equally good ways of helping others control their fear of illnesses.

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