Hypochondria is a mental disorder that affects 1 to 5 percent of the population.
As Amelia Jones, a senior at Marquette University, settled down for an afternoon nap in her sorority house, her eye caught a glare from the makeup mirror on her desk—light was reflecting off the shiny exterior of a bug in her hair.
She started to panic.
Amelia trapped the bug under a water bottle and sent a photo of it to three of her friends. She hoped they could tell her what type of bug it was, but the answers differed. Amelia thought it might be a tick, but two of her friends assured her it wasn’t. Her third friend said it was definitely a bed bug.
Frenzied, Amelia fixated on the idea of bed bugs. She researched the bug and the symptoms of its bite in great depth. Reading the symptoms, she felt crawling sensations on her skin. Once she felt like a bed bug expert, Amelia rushed over to examine her bed, pulling her sheets down to search for any sign of the critters.
An unwelcome thought crept into her head: Should I rip open the mattress to make sure?
No, that’s ridiculous, Amelia thought. She couldn’t rip the mattress open. It belonged to her sorority. You are being absolutely ridiculous.
Even after deciding the bug she’d trapped wasn’t a bed bug or tick, Amelia still felt like bugs were crawling all over her. She took a shower, but it wasn’t enough to make her feel clean. She ended up taking four more.
Amelia has hypochondria. This condition affects roughly 1 to 5 percent of the population, according to the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
People with hypochondria have intense, constant fears of illness or injury. Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate professor of Health Science at Ball State University and former psychiatrist, describes hypochondria as heightened anxiety regarding health and wellness. Khubchandani says people become obsessive over their health and fixate on illnesses they might not actually have. They might obsessively research symptoms, eventually convincing themselves they have a rare or fatal illness. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with hypochondria can also experience compulsive behaviors and dizziness.
These symptoms tend to worsen when an individual feels anxious about something else, according to the health website MedlinePlus. So the severity of an individual’s hypochondria fluctuates with their stress level.
Hypochondria often stems from another mental illness like depression or anxiety, Khubchandani says. But not everyone with anxiety or depression has hypochondria, or vice versa.
Amelia has experienced anxiety, though. During her sophomore year of college, she was in a relationship that took a toll on her mental health and she found it hard to balance the other demands of college, such as cheerleading practices. The relationship Amelia was in at the time caused her anxiety and was emotionally difficult. Around this time she began experiencing panic attacks, and eventually had to seek help from a professional from her university.
Khubchandani says it’s common for students to experience some type of mental illness during college, where they might face heightened stress levels or lack of sleep. More than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness in the past year, according to Chadron State College’s Behavior Intervention Team.
Some mental disorders can be genetic. Khubchandani says hypochondria has a minor genetic contribution. So it is possible that the disease is heritable. However, with little research on the subject, we still lack full understanding of the disease and its origin.
Amelia’s paternal grandfather has been diagnosed with hypochondria, and witnessing his symptoms firsthand over the years helped Amelia be able to diagnose herself by eighth grade. She has never officially been diagnosed with hypochondria but feels certain that she’s had the disorder since middle school. It’s kind of fitting.
When she was in the eighth grade, Amelia noticed she would often experience diarrhea after consuming dairy. She was mortified every time she had to leave class and run to the bathroom. She began to fear that she had a parasite or a rare disease that would surely lead to her death. When she saw a doctor about her symptoms, Amelia was surprised to learn that she didn’t have a condition that would lead to her untimely demise. Amelia was simply lactose intolerant.
Amelia says that she’s learned over the years not to take herself too seriously. When she suspects she’s overreacting about her health Amelia calls her mother who helps to reassure and calm Amelia down. Her friends know to not talk about illnesses or blood and gore around her. She also avoids all medical shows—such as cult favorite Grey’s Anatomy—in fear of self-diagnosing a disease she more than likely doesn’t have. But despite all of this, Amelia does not feel limited by her hypochondria. She can go about her daily life without it affecting her quality of life or involvement on campus. Amelia’s advice to others is that you can never be too careful with your health.