As characterized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the essential feature of hypochondriasis is a preoccupation with fears of having, or the idea that one has, a serious disease based on a misinterpretation of one or more bodily signs or symptoms. Medical evaluations do not identify a general medical condition that fully accounts for the individual's concern about disease or for the physical signs or symptoms. The unwarranted fear or idea of having a disease persists despite medical reassurance.

The preoccupation in hypochondriasis may be with bodily functions (e.g., heartbeat or sweating); with minor physical abnormalities (e.g., a small sore or an occasional cough); or with vague and ambiguous physical sensations (e.g., an aching body part). The individual attributes these symptoms or signs to the suspected disease. Repeated physical examinations and reassurance from a physician do little to relieve the concern about bodily disease. Individuals with hypochondriasis may become alarmed by reading or hearing about disease, knowing someone who becomes sick, or from observations, sensations, or occurrences within their own bodies.

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