I’m A Hypochondriac. I’m Coping.

When I was younger, I worried that I might be a hypochondriac. Periodically when something was “weird” in my body, I would self-diagnose right up the scale to a condition that surely would spell the end of me. My worry about having hypochondria turned out to be valid. Fortunately — so far — none of my fears and dreads about bodily shutdown and degeneration have come to pass.

Of course, that’s just so far. I’ve still got plenty of time to go, and it’s anybody’s guess what’s around the next corner. Yes, I’m a hypochondriac.  But I’m coping, which is the only way to keep from going insane. (And don’t think I haven’t worried about that on more than one occasion.)

There’s a Little Hypochondriac in All of Us

Before getting too deep here, I should explain what hypochondria (official name is Illness Anxiety Disorder) is and what it isn’t. In simplest terms, hypochondria is a condition in which a person overly worries about having a serious illness. Any odd symptom can trigger an alarm that the pain or the twinge or the dysfunction is the beginning of something really terrible.

Most of the time, a hypochondriac’s fears are based on self-diagnosis. In extreme cases, even the reassurance of a physician isn’t enough to convince the person that there isn’t a serious problem that will keep progressing until it finally takes him out and he’s lying there in the ground with mourners standing graveside saying, “Bill knew his soft fingernails pointed to liver failure, but no doctor would listen to him!”

Hypochondria takes many forms, from annoying to outright debilitating.

Remember, the key factor in hypochondria is the excessive, unfounded alarm brought on by a given symptom or symptoms. Usually, at least in my case, these are very minor symptoms. It would not be considered hypochondria for a person who’s sitting there watching TV and suddenly experiences sharp, stabbing abdominal pain and blood pouring out of his nose to believe a trip to the ER is required.

Whereas if a person’s ears ring for 30 seconds and he becomes gripped with fear that it signals dangerous brain swelling and he puts his dog up for adoption and demands to be admitted to the hospital for a full run of tests, that’s probably hypochondria.

Most of the time, a hypochondriac’s fears are based on self-diagnosis.
Most of the time, a hypochondriac’s fears are based on self-diagnosis.

An Example From My Archives

Eleven years ago, I began having some aching and congestion in my throat.  A quick spin through a few medical websites assured me that I had throat cancer. So I made an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist.  It was a scary time. It was August, it was hot, and I was listening to Elton John’s Madman Across the Water album a lot in those days. There’s a song called “Rotten Peaches,” and every time I heard it, I thought it perfectly described me and my new illness: “Rotten peaches, rotting in the sun.”

At my meeting with the ENT, he scribbled in a chart as I outlined my deadly symptoms. It went something like this:

ME: So it’s important, if I have throat cancer…

DOC: You don’t have throat cancer.

ME: But you didn’t even do a physical exam.

DOC: I don’t need to.

ME: Look, you don’t have to sugarcoat it. I know what’s going…

DOC: You don’t have throat cancer.

ME: But the ache in my throat… the congestion that’s trying to keep the cancer from spreading…

DOC: I operate on 30 people a year who have throat cancer. You don’t have throat cancer.

I went home, and the pain and congestion went away. And I stopped listening to “Rotten Peaches.”

Reminders That Help Us Cope

Hypochondria isn’t impossible to cope with, as long as you keep reminding yourself of four important facts:

1. A single symptom can mean many things, not just the worst things.

2. Doctors know more than you.

3. Nothing has killed you yet, so you have a good track record.

4. Medical websites are not substitutes for physical examinations.

Hypochondria takes many forms, from annoying to outright debilitating.  If you worry that you have this condition, consult with a doctor or psychologist. If you’re lucky, you’ll discover that this is the only thing you have.

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