Illness Anxiety Disorder is more commonly known as hypochondria. Most people are familiar with the concept of someone who worries so much about imagined illnesses that they cause themselves actual ones, and everyone can relate to feeling fear when faced with uncertainty about a personal medical condition, but despite the familiarity it’s easy to get it wrong. This article looks at believable and realistic ways to portray a character with Illness Anxiety Disorder.
Hypochondria is one of the most common of psychiatric conditions, probably because humans have evolved to be concerned about their health. Getting alarmed about someone you know getting sick makes a lot of sense if you live in a small tribe of about 150 people, while contagious diseases can decimate society. Getting alarmed because you saw something about cancer on television doesn’t make sense, and if this gets bad enough it can become a real problem. .
The disorder is really a gross exaggeration of what would normally be a healthy level of anxiety over one’s physical condition. Instead of maintaining a moderate level of awareness about one’s body, ready to take appropriate measures when necessary, a person with Illness Anxiety Disorder will compulsively check and re-check spots and bumps and marks, and will intently track all rumblings and pains.
Hypochondriasis is believed to be ultimately caused by depression and anxiety, which manifests as an obsession with illness. As with many anxiety-based illnesses, dysregulated stress responsivity as a consequence of early childhood abuse is frequently a factor, although this also commonly arises from a single traumatic shock.
If the protagonist of your story has Illness Anxiety Disorder, this might manifest in ways that are similar to the other anxiety-based and obsessive conditions. They might go to considerable lengths to avoid triggering their condition, such as refusing to visit sick friends or family members. This can quickly cause conflict with the people closest to them, especially if those people think that the hypochondriac is shirking their duties.
A character with Illness Anxiety Disorder is likely to fixate on a particular set of symptoms that they have come to believe is indicative of a medical condition. In fact, they are likely to identify a condition and name it. As could be expected, the availability of Dr. Google to everyone’s home has been tempting for those inclined towards Illness Anxiety Disorder. Many hypochondriacs obsessively research their self-diagnosed condition online.
It’s easy for other characters to become frustrated with a protagonist who has Illness Anxiety Disorder, especially if the hypochondria starts to have an impact on their punctuality or ability to hold an ordinary conversation. It quickly becomes tiresome to listen to a litany of medical complaints every time you see a person, and once other characters start to dread such a thing then they are likely to leave the protagonist on their own.
A protagonist who encounters another character with Illness Anxiety Disorder might find it a great challenge to keep the conversation away from that character’s morbid pre-occupation with death and disease. They might have to make a great effort of will to keep their patience and not become angry. It might also be hard not to tell the hypochondriac to “harden up” or to “get over it”.
As with most of the other conditions in this book, Illness Anxiety Disorder has to cause significant disruption to the life of the character with it before it can qualify as a clinical condition. However, there is a wide range of subclinical forms of hypochondria, such as a preoccupation with various symptoms like everyday pains in the chest, stomach, head or gut. These might be symptomatic of a deeper problem.
Most of the disruption caused by this condition is a consequence of the heavy anxiety it is linked with. This anxiety makes hypochondriacs difficult to get along with, because they are always checking their body functions or fidgeting. The constant need for reassurance that hypochondriacs have is apt to drive their doctor up the wall, let along their partner or caregiver.
Usually, a character with hypochondria will not realise it, at least not initially. Most people are not aware of the extent of physical symptoms that can be produced by simple anxiety and depression, and it’s common to attribute these symptoms to a severe disease instead of psychological origins. It’s possible, then, to use physical symptoms – even if psychosomatic – to foreshadow a general decline in health .
At the end of the day, most of your readers will already know about hypochondria and will have met someone with the condition, even if it was at a subclinical level. It won’t take very many hints for them to realise that a particular character in your story is a hypochondriac. The real challenge, from the perspective of the writer, is to depict such a character realistically and not as a stereotype.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.