Woody Allen, famously full of neuroses, wrote an article about his anxieties and fears about getting sick in the January 12 New York Times. In Hypochondria: An Inside Look, he details many of the “diseases” he has imagined for himself over the years…how the mildest symptom causes him to instantly conclude the worst is happening inside him:
The point is, I am always certain I’ve come down with something life threatening. It matters little that few people are ever found dead of chapped lips. Every minor ache or pain sends me to a doctor’s office in need of reassurance…
Even when the results of my yearly checkup show perfect health, how can I relax knowing that the minute I leave the doctor’s office something may start growing in me and, by the time a full year rolls around, my chest X-ray will look like a Jackson Pollock? [messy abstract painting] Incidentally, this relentless preoccupation with health has made me quite the amateur medical expert…
While Woody’s article is entertaining, it doesn’t give us any real answers how to control hypochondria, but if you suffer from the problem or know someone who does, you might well recognize the situations he talks about. When waking up with a mild tension headache makes you conclude that you have an inoperable brain tumor, or a stomach ache is the beginning of an ulcer, or worse.
Hypochondriasis affects up to 5% of the population, and typically starts during one’s 20s, but could erupt at any time, especially following the illness or medical scare in a friend or relative. It affects men and women equally, and often waxes and wanes over a person’s lifetime.
Hypochondriasis is considered a type of anxiety disorder, somewhat related to obsessive-compulsive disorders. The OCD person might check multiple times that they locked the door, as the hypochondriac compulsively checks the internet regarding symptoms and disease.
It’s good for us to be aware of what’s going on in our bodies, but the hypochondriac is overly aware of any changes in his body, and when something is noticed, he is unable to turn off this awareness and often concludes it’s a debilitating or fatal illness.
The internet has made it easier for hypochondriacs to feed their anxieties, and medical information on the internet is so extensive that any Google search is sure to find results that feed a person’s anxieties. Many sufferers will frequently and on an emergent basis visit doctors, typically multiple doctors, asking for tests and X-rays to confirm or deny their fears. And even if tests are done and the results are fine, the person will continue to worry that the tests missed something, and they seek out more medical opinions and more tests.
A “cure” of hypochondriasis is not easy, but measures can be taken to help, and over time many sufferers recognize their problem is more mental than physical (as in Woody Allen’s case) and learn that most likely, that symptom they just noticed is more likely a manifestation of their anxiety, than the end of their life. Here are some hints that could help:
1) Find a caring and experienced doctor who you trust, and who can objectively monitor your health and worrisome symptoms. You want a doctor who will spend time listening to you, and not just order a bunch of tests that might be unnecessary and in the long run, harmful. You might agree on a regular check-up every few months, and each time talk over all your symptoms.
2) Many people get relief from a psychologist or a psychiatrist and talk therapy, and often one of the modern anti-depressant drugs will greatly help.
3) Resist the compulsion to look up every symptom and disease on the internet. That is not easy for a hypochondriac, but the sufferer needs to recognize that looking up information excessively just fuels the problem, like a vicious cyle, or an addiction. Just don’t do it! Good luck!
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