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Those with Muchausen Syndrome and hypochondria are both obsessed with having illnesses they don't actually suffer from, but that's where the similarities end. What are the key differences between these two disorders? Read on to find out.

Hypochondria and Munchausen are two words we've almost all heard. Both, we know, refer to people who are obsessed with disease and illness without actually having the serious medical issues they talk about. What exactly is the difference between Munchausen Syndrome and Hypochondria, though? What are the tell-tale signs?

What's Hypochondria Really About?

Worrying about health is, I think, something that we all do from time to time. Those heart palpitations, that lump in our breast or testicle, that abdominal pain... whatever it is, we're prone to Googling it, seeing the worst-case scenario come up on our screen rather quickly, and giving ourselves a death sentence before we even get to the doctor. 

For most of us, however, this feeling of panic is of a passing nature. Once that instant of panic is over, we make an appointment with our physician and get a diagnosis, or, of course, the all-clear. Though excessive Googling may get you to label yourself a hypochondriac, most people who go through this process suffer from nothing more than living in an age where information is readily available. 

The diagnosis of "hypochondria" doesn't actually exist anymore, having been replaced with two alternative conditions in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM 5. They are both characterized by excessive worry or obsession with illness or symptoms that are not anchored in reality.

  1. Illness Anxiety Disorder: People with Illness Anxiety Disorder obsessively worry about medical conditions in the absence of any physical symptoms, or in the presence of mild symptoms, often even after their doctor has reassured them they do not suffer from the condition they are preoccupied with. [1]
  2. Somatic Symptom Disorder: People with Somatic Symptom Disorder do actually have physical symptoms, but they occur in the absence of an actual disease or injury. [2]

Illness Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

People who suffer from Illness Anxiety Disorder will be extremely focused on the idea that they are ill or at risk of an illness, interpret normal bodily processes or minor symptoms as symptoms of a serious disease, excessively worry about diseases that run in their family, and constantly worry about their health in general. Notably, people who suffer from Illness Anxiety Disorder don't find much reassurance when their doctor informs them they don't have the disease they were worried about, and their concerns about being or becoming ill take up so much of their time and mental energy that daily functioning is impaired. 

Making frequent doctor's appointments for reassurance, spending time researching conditions, going above and beyond to avoid contaminants (eg: not using public transport for fear of getting ill), and checking their body for alarming signs can all be an integral part of Illness Anxiety Disorder.

If you recognize yourself in these symptoms, you should consider visiting a therapist or at least try relaxation techniques for anxiety.  

Somatic Symptom Disorder Symptoms

People with Somatic Symptom Disorder actually experience physical symptoms like chronic pain, shortness of breath, diarrhea, and abdominal bloating. Diagnosing this disorder is a matter of excluding physical disorders. Somatic Symptom Disorder may be a real mental disorder, but extreme caution is warranted before diagnosing someone with it: the possibility that a patient's symptoms are the result of a very real physical problem that has simply not been identified yet — because it's very rare, for instance — should not be dismissed.

Risk Factors

While no specific cause of hypochondria has been identified, there are known risk factors. They include having a family history of disease, having had a serious disease in the past (for example, if you've had breast cancer before, you may worry about the cancer coming back), going through a period of major stress, and — take note! — spending a lot of time researching health issues online. [3] People with a history of childhood abuse and those that are generally prone to anxiety are also at a higher risk of developing one of the disorders that would previously have been classified as hypochondria.

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