Cognitive Behavioural Therapy offers hope for hypochondriacs

No, that doesn’t mean turning to Dr Google to look up every symptom you’re worried about.

Swedish researchers have made some interesting discoveries when looking into ways to support people who suffer from ‘health anxiety’ otherwise known as hypochondriasis. The findings could mean that the Internet is their friend rather than a source of even more concern.

A study conducted at the Internet Psychiatry Clinic at the Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden, showed that online cognitive behavioural therapy programmes proved to be even more effective in treating people who suffered from excessive stress and anxiety about their health than some other well established psychological treatments, such as teaching them relaxation techniques and other stress management therapies.

Health anxiety is a psychological disorder which is usually characterised by a strong, persistent and excessive fear of developing a serious illness. The symptoms can be so intense in some cases that patients suffering from the disorder may even begin to experience real physical symptoms like chest pain or headaches which they convince themselves are caused by a serious illness.

The medical condition can cause real distress to the people who suffer with it, and it often develops in patients who are already dealing with mental health issues like depression.

Using the Internet to deliver Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for health anxiety involves giving patients gradual exposure to some of the situations that may provoke their anxiety.

In a recent study, the team of researchers took 158 participants, recruited by self-referral or through psychiatrists and primary care physicians, and gave them both internet-based and psychological treatment over a period of 12 weeks. The participants had access to therapists via e-mail. Although the participants reported that they found both types of treatment to be equally reliable in reducing their anxiety, the exposure-based treatment was found to reduce their anxiety more than the other treatments which only focused on relaxation and stress management. Overall, participants receiving internet-based CBT made superior improvements compared with the control group on measures of health anxiety.

Licensed psychologist Erik Hedman, who led the study, said that,

More people can be treated since the treatment time per patient is significantly lower as compared to that of traditional treatment. Internet treatment is independent of physical distance and, in time, this means that treatment can be administered to people who live in rural areas or in places where there is no outpatient psychiatry with access to psychologists with CBT expertise.”

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