[ hī′pə-kən-drīə-sĭs ]
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n. pl. hy•po•chon•dri•a•ses (-sēz′)
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The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.


What does hypochondriasis mean?

Hypochondriasis was once used as the name of the condition involving constantly and excessively worrying about one’s health, believing that one is or is about to become ill when there is really no reason to believe so. The condition was also commonly called hypochondria.

A person who worries in this way was once commonly called a hypochondriac.

However, mental health practitioners have largely stopped using the terms hypochondriasis, hypochondria, and hypochondriac in favor of other terms due to such labels being seen as demeaning. People with the condition are now sometimes diagnosed with illness anxiety disorder. The chronic anxiety that the condition involves is often focused on particular ailments—such as heart or stomach pains—and may even be accompanied by physical symptoms.

It’s normal to wonder if you’re sick when you have a cough or a runny nose, but illness anxiety disorder is recognized as a mental disorder when such worrying becomes constant and excessive, especially when there are no symptoms. In these cases, the anxiety often disrupts a person’s daily life.

The words hypochondriac and hypochondria are still often used in a casual way outside of their use by medical and mental health professionals, such as in the context of a person who frequently becomes convinced that minor pains are a sign of a serious health problem. However, using the words in this way can be insensitive and offensive.

Example: Labeling patients as having hypochondriasis only stigmatized them—it didn’t do anything to help their underlying anxiety.

Where does hypochondriasis come from?

The first records of the word hypochondriasis come from the 1700s, with hypochondria first being recorded in the mid-1500s. The terms ultimately come from the Greek hypokhondria, meaning “under the cartilage (of the upper abdomen).”

Early senses of the words hypochondria and hypochondriac were used in reference to the medieval notion that people’s personalities are based on the balance of four different types of elemental fluids in their body, called humors. An excess of one the so-called humors, black bile, was thought to cause a person to be in a state of gloominess and depression known as melancholy. This melancholy was thought to be seated in the upper abdomen. (The related term hypochondrium is still used in anatomy to refer to one of two regions in the abdomen.)

Eventually, hypochondria came to refer to a condition involving frequent complaints about stomach pains and then to the condition of believing that you have illnesses that you don’t actually have. Hypochondriasis was typically used in a medical or mental health context.

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