Health Nut or Hypochondriac: Which Are You?

A large part of the American public is obsessed about their health. They want to live long lives and stay as youthful as possible. Our friends might even call us a "health nut" because we are always trying out the latest in preventative medicine and scouring the Internet for latest health research.  Being health conscious is a positive thing to be. However, when the obsession goes too far, it can tip the scales beyond "health nut" to hypochondriac.

Hypochondria is a chronic mental illness in which the patient fears having an undiagnosed serious or life-threatening disease, or believes that normal bodily sensations or vague symptoms mean that they have a disease. Hypochondriacs  become so convinced that they seek doctor after doctor in search of a diagnosis.

Dr. Joshua Straus, attending psychiatrist at Evanston-Northwestern Healthcare in the Chicago area, says: "Most people who have this problem have a conviction that something is the matter, and it's very hard to talk them out of their concerns, out of their fears."

Current estimates by the American Psychological Association say hypochondria affects about 5 percent of the population and can be a very serious condition that interferes with a person's daily life and can result in actual physical problems such as panic attacks or depression.

"One of the leading theories about how this disorder gets started and why it continues is that there may be a real difference in the sensitivity of some people to ordinary physical sensation which they then misinterpret ... it's sort of like having a faulty fire alarm or smoke detector in your house. It's going off all the time even though you just burned some toast," says Dr. Strauss.

Unfortunately, some people with hypochondria may indeed have a physical condition, and it may be overlooked by health care professionals. The health professionals may have grown so frustrated with the hypochondriac's frequent appointments that they dismiss them without realizing that something truly is wrong this time--creating the boy who cried wolf syndrome.

Signs and Symptoms of Hypochondria

  • Excessive fear or anxiety about having a particular disease or condition
  • Worry that minor symptoms mean a serious illness
  • Frequent checking body for problems, such as lumps or sores
  • Frequent checking of vital signs, such as pulse or blood pressure
  • Obsessive health research
  • Seeking repeated medical exams or consultations
  • Frequently switching doctors and frustration with doctors or medical care
  • Strained social relationships
  • Missing work, school or social engagements due to worrying
  • Emotional distress, anxiety and depression

If you realize that your pursuit of a medical diagnosis has essentially taken over your life, that you worry constantly about your health, or that you don't believe doctors who tell you that you're in good health, contact a mental health provider as soon as possible.

In the meanwhile, here are some tips and tools to help you cope with hypochondria.

Coping with Hypochondria

  • Speak openly to your family, friends and caregivers about your condition so that they will be able to empathize, understand and support you.
  • Join a support group where you will be able to relate to others with the same condition.
  • Develop an interest in a sport or hobby in order to learn how to focus outside of yourself and keep yourself busy.
  • Try and stop yourself from obsessively reading about illness and symptoms. When you find yourself beginning to focus on a symptom, distract yourself somehow by phoning a friend, going for a walk, or listening to music.
  • Regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and a healthy balanced diet will all go a long way towards reducing anxiety and stress levels.

Treatment of Hypochondria

Delaying treatment of hypochondria can allow the disorder to become more severe, making it more difficult to treat. Getting diagnosed is important because it can help the patient get started in treatment. If you suspect that you or someone you care for has crossed the line from health nut to hypochondriac, contact a mental health provider right away.


Abramowitz JS, et al. Hypochondriasis: Conceptualization, treatment, and relationship to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 2006;29:503-519.

Cappello, D. Treating Hypochondria, Q & A. The New Yorker. August, 11, 2003.

Foreman, J. (Health Now host). Reviewed by Ed Zimmey, MD. Hypochondria: Worrying Yourself Sick. Interview with Dr. Joshua Straus, attending psychiatrist at Evanston-Northwestern Healthcare. September 10, 2008.

Hypochondria. Information Page.