Treatment of Hypochondriasis / Health Anxiety

Hi Dr. Burns,

I have read feeling good and listened to all your podcasts as of today. I have a history of hypochondria and depression and your book helped me tremendously in overcoming my anxiety. I am beyond happy that I can finally have control over my emotions.

I used to go to psychotherapy sessions with multiple different psychotherapists and more often than not the solutions they offered were along the line of “keep as busy as possible not to give in to the thoughts” or “imagine the obsessive thoughts as a spoiled brat that you should not give into” which all failed dramatically. And believe me when I say they even made it worse than before!

Recently I was listening to some your anxiety podcasts in which you introduced the exposure technique. You described how it worked in the case of Pedro, the young man with OCD who was having intrusive thoughts of Jesus having sex with Mary in all the positions of the Kama Sutra. And the harder he tried to control these forbidden thoughts, the more intense they became!

You also described the Experimental Technique you used in your panic attack patients. I was wondering if these techniques can be helpful in the case of patients dealing with health anxiety.

I read a research paper of a psychiatrist treating her hypochondriac patients with exposure techniques. For example, in my case, if I’m always scared of contracting HIV, I might volunteer to work with HIV positive patients so I could confront my fear. I was wondering if that could help with the urge to get tested very often and if there are any other techniques you specifically find useful in this case.

I used the exposure technique successfully to eliminate my frightening thoughts of slitting my wrists or throat with a razor. These thoughts used to give me a tremendous amount of anxiety and I would always try to eliminate them from my mind as soon as they appeared, almost automatically thinking that’s the way to protect myself. That didn’t work! But now they are completely gone as I spent a full half-day just repeating those images in my mind, over and over again. I tried to imagine all the graphic details until I was completely bored with them! I would like to thank you for reaching out and sharing your knowledge and expertise with people despite the fact that you don’t practice anymore.

And by the way that jumping jacks story with your patient who thought she was about to die during a panic attack has become an inside joke between me and my husband!

Sincerely,

Mona

Hi Mona,

Thank you for your kind comments about the Feeling Good podcasts! I know that my host, Fabrice, will be thrilled to hear that you like them and find them helpful!

There are so many things I appreciate about your wonderful email that I’m not sure where to begin. I do want to emphasize that I cannot treat anyone or give medical advice in this medium, so my answer, as always, will consist of general teaching.

First, I resonated when you described previous therapists who gave you advice, thinking that would help. To my way of thinking, an awful lot of “psychotherapy” consists of schmoozing behind closed doors with the occasional piece of advice thrown in, and in most cases, that just doesn’t get the job done. In fact it can make people feel worse, because it is often sounds patronizing.

Second, I have a current series of several Feeling Good podcast on the treatment of anxiety using four models that are all described in my book, When Panic Attacks. They are the Motivational Model, the Cognitive Model, the Exposure Model, and the Hidden Emotion Model. All four models have tremendous healing power, and I integrate all four into my treatment of each individual with anxiety, because you never know which one, or which combination, will give you the “ah-ha” moment when the anxiety suddenly disappears completely. You can listen to those podcasts right now if you like, either on iTunes or right here on my website, feelinggood.com.

In the treatment of OCD, the Exposure Model usually has two components: Exposure and Response Prevention. So if a person has an irrational fear of HIV, as you described in your email, they could use Cognitive Exposure or Classical Exposure. Cognitive Exposure might involve fantasizing dying of HIV until the fantasy becomes totally boring. Classical Exposure might involve volunteer work with HIV patients, as you mentioned.

In therapy, I work with the patient to figure out what type of Exposure will be the most effective. The Exposure has to be anxiety-provoking, or it won’t be helpful. And, as you say, the goal of exposure is not to control the anxiety—which makes it worse—but simply to flood yourself with the anxiety until it finally loses its power over you.

Response Prevention would mean, in this case, refusing to give in to the urge to get repeated blood tests, if that’s what you are doing to deal with your fear of HIV. But the Response Prevention has to be tailored to your compulsion. Let’s assume that you had OCD with a handwashing compulsion, so you are washing your hands repeatedly all day long to get rid of the imagined “contamination.” Response Prevention would mean refusing to give in to the urge to wash your hands repeatedly. The anxiety will increase for several days, but if you refuse to give in, the compulsion will generally diminish and disappear. This is a bit like drug withdrawal, actually.

But Exposure is just one of four effective treatment models. I treated a medical student with severe OCD who also had the fear of HIV, and Exposure and Response Prevention were only somewhat helpful, and definitely not curative. In his case, the Hidden Emotion Technique ruled the day. If you are interested, you can read about that fantastic technique in my book, When Panic Attacks, and of course, one of the Feeling Good podcasts on anxiety will focus on this technique.

I have treated many patients with health anxiety / hypochondriasis and the Hidden Emotion Technique almost always contributed greatly to their (frequently rapid and complete) recovery. But in therapy, I use more than 75 techniques to help folks—it just isn’t the case that you can have one “formula” that works for everyone, since we are all individuals and our negative thoughts and feelings will be unique—so that requires an individualized approach to treatment, namely TEAM-CBT. (That’s my commercial message!)

All the best,

David

2 thoughts on “Treatment of Hypochondriasis / Health Anxiety

  1. Dr. Burns, I’m really speechless and in awe. I certainly did not expect such a comprehensive reply from you. I listened to Anxiety podcasts and your book When Panicked Attacks is currently on it’s way from Amazon! I could totally related to the hidden emotions technique. As fake as it may sound I have the same classical issue as your clients you mentioned in the podcast: having a job that I’m not happy with at all but feel guilty and unappreciative to quit it and follow what I’ve always wanted to do. I was having goose bumps when you were explaining how our we normally brush our emotions under the rug and it almost always come out as some sort of anxiety disorder. I’m currently in the process of quitting my job to follow my dream. Thank you again for all you do for the community and if there was a god and a heaven I’m sure you would have gotten a very fancy spot reserved with your name on it!

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