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Illness Anxiety Disorder

Illness Anxiety Disorder is characterized by excessive worry or “anxiety” about having a medical illness. Typically, there is an absence of a serious medical condition; if one does exist, these individuals might react to it in an excessive and disproportionate way. Individuals with this disorder may seem very preoccupied with discovering or avoiding the acquisition of a medical condition.

Those with Illness Anxiety Disorder frequently present in medical settings rather than mental health settings- evidently because of the nature of their somatic concerns (there is also a subtype that avoids medical care). The distress experienced is usually not so much about the physical complaint, itself; rather, it stems from the anxiety about the meaning, cause, or course of their complaint. These individuals may perform excessive research on their somatic concern (e.g., on the Internet). Their anxiety might interfere with interpersonal relationships and cause avoidance of situations which might threaten their health (e.g., being around sick people).

Similarities and Differences with Somatic Symptom Disorder

In both Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder, there is a preoccupation with medical illness. However, in Somatic Symptom Disorder there is generally a somatic expression of the complaint (e.g., back pain), whereas in Illness Anxiety Disorder, it is dominated by anxiety about having or acquiring a serious medical illness.

In both cases there is a high occurrence of doctor visits. In both cases a failure to make a diagnosis may cause even more distress or concern. If a medical condition does exist, in both cases there is an excessive and disproportionate concern about the severity of the condition. Both of these illnesses might influence one’s identity, interpersonal relationships, engagement in daily activities, and avoidance of situations that threaten health.

Those with Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder sometimes present to medical settings with legitimate health problems. Nevertheless, busy and stressed physicians might overlook their concerns, or reflexively respond with frustration and dismissiveness. This could result in the failure to recognize or diagnose a valid health problem.

Material summarized from:

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

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