Interpretation of bodily symptoms in hypochondriasis

  • Hitchcock P
  • Mathews A
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Abstract

Although it has been suggested that hypochondriasis is caused by the misinterpretation of innocuous bodily sensations, support for this hypothesis rests largely upon uncontrolled self-report. We investigated the interpretation of ambiguous bodily sensations in three experiments using separate samples of non-clinical subjects differing in level of hypochondriacal concern. Results confirmed that subjects with high hypochondriacal concern endorse more thoughts about illness interpretations of bodily sensations, but reported thought content resembled 'catastrophic' rather than the 'non-emergency' thoughts suggested by Warwick and Salkovskis (Hypocondriasis. Behavior Research and Therapy, 28, 105-117, 1990). Presence of an interpretive bias was further supported in a study of recognition bias for disambiguated versions of ambiguously threatening sentences, although this applied as much to social as to illness threats. A final experiment failed to support the hypothesis of an automatic inference bias, but did show that subjects with high hypochondriacal concern were quicker to correctly identify previously exposed illness words. Thus, reported thoughts are consistent with catastrophic interpretations of common bodily sensations, but interpretive bias may not be limited to illness threat. However, high hypochondriacal subjects do show a more specific enhanced perceptual sensitivity to illness cues, which may play a role in maintaining their concern with bodily symptoms. © 1992.

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