Cartoon by Al Bar
Anyone else out there have a slight tendency toward hypochondria?
No, not the sort where your life is one long parade of ominous symptoms, visits to specialists, and appointments for tests, re-tests, and re-re-tests--because maybe the results say you're fine but suppose the lab accidentally mixed up your samples with some healthy person's?
That's the fullblown, clinical kind. I'm talking about the more occasional, amateur type hypochondria. Hypochondria "Lite."
The sort of hypochondria where, just hypothetically, you might find one night you're seeing some sort of weird crescent shaped thing in your eye, and you remember something about the symptoms of detached retinas and the dire importance of seeking immediate medical attention for them. And then you convince yourself that because you are not going to roust your sleeping spouse and go to the emergency room, you will probably wake up the next morning blind in one eye. But then instead you wake up the next morning and you're fine! And so you forget all about it.
That kind of hypochondria.
Here's a quick diagnostic test.
Let's say you notice a reddish pimply-looking bump on your leg. That bump is most probably:
a. A pimple.
b. The beginning stages of a potentially deadly flesh eating bacteria you must have picked up at the gym, since you've never had a pimple on your leg before in your entire life. However, since it's conceivable that it's something less ominous, you might wait a few days before checking with a doctor.
c. Malignant melanoma in the final stages. You make an appointment with your doctor and insist she see you as soon as possible, but you also call your attorney to update your will because you know you are a goner.
If you are an "A" person, congratulations, you are normal! If you are a "C" person, we need to talk--meet me at the bottom of the post.
But what about all of us "B" people, the Amateur Hypochondriacs? (And yes, both examples were me--I did worry I had a detached retina, and feared I'd contracted MRSA from my gym this summer until the pimple went away).
We amateurs are little worry-wartish about our health and occasionally think we're going to die when we're not--but we don't freak out nearly often enough or severely enough that it screws up our lives.
Saving Grace: Being a Lazy Slacker
The only reason I haven't humiliated myself in doctor's offices from coast to coast with my exagerrated health fears is because I hate going to the doctor. So I take a "wait and see" attitude--even if while I'm waiting and seeing I'm also seriously considering the possibility that I'm dying. But year after year, the weird bumps and aches and numb spots etc have never turned out to be anything fatal. So this strategy has been surprisingly effective.
Here's a particularly weird example: I was out running one morning and when I finished my run, I had lost the ability to remember about 75% of my vocabulary.
Not just abstract words like "abstemious" or "profligate." I couldn't think of basic words like "muffin" or "blueberry" or "egg" (it was breakfast time) or "scared" (which I was) or "stroke," which I was pretty sure I was having.
This bout of aphasia lasted maybe half an hour. And then, wham, a headache. I almost never get headaches. But fortunately, my words came back. (I'm kinda attached to them).
But before I sought medical attention... I had a vague recollection that my mother had a similar episode of not being able to remember words, and that it hadn't been a stroke but something far less scary. So I called her up (once I regained my ability to speak). I asked her what the heck she'd been diagnosed with.
Her answer? A migraine.
Did you know that one symptom of a migraine is aphasia? Well, I didn't, but I sure as hell do now. So it was yet another 911 call I was glad I didn't make.
Good Reasons for Being a Bit of a Worry Wart
I think anyone who spends a fair amount of time reading about health on the web is at least at some risk for health-related anxiety. With access to more medical information that we know what to do with, it's easy to start with a weird pain in your jaw and end up with a bad case of cyberchondria.
Part of the problem is that so many awful, fatal diseases start with vague symptoms that everyone gets all the time. And if you read the "warning signs," many articles will tell you to run off and check with your doctor right away.
Say you're experiencing a bit of fatigue, or you have a headache, or you've lost some weight, or you've got swollen lymph glands, or you're feeling a bit bloated or light-headed or your feet are numb or you're nauseated. Could be nothing--or, depending on the symptom, it could be a heart attack or ovarian cancer or multiple sclerosis or all kinds of serious things. How can we not be a little bit paranoid?
And no doubt some of you have paid attention to vague symptoms, got yourself to a doctor, and saved your own life by catching a potential fatal illness in it's early, treatable stages. Do not read this post and stop doing that!
But I just have too many transient symptoms that have never, ever meant anything. If followed all the advice I've read about when to seek medical attention, I'd be at the doctor's office every damn day of my life. My solution: I don't go in, but I keep tabs on the symptom and freak out a bit, especially if it's something new and weird.
It always goes away again. So far, so good--I'm still alive!
Unfortunately though, I know folks who ignored innocuous symptoms and it turned out to be Something Bad. So I really don't know what the answer is. Serious diseases are pretty darn rare. But if lots of Weird Things are going on, and not going away, then go get it checked out. Don't worry if your doctor thinks your a whiny worry-wart. Unless this pattern seems to happen to you a LOT.
What If Worries About Your Health Are Interfering With Your Life?
You can get help! If you are frequently afraid you have a serious illness even when doctors assure you you're perfectly fine--you don't have to suffer with this type of anxiety anymore. It's treatable. Studies are finding cognitive-behavioral therapy helps a lot, and that Paxil can be effective too. (But since all drugs have side effects, I might investigate the CBT first.)
And speaking of side effects, do they even let folks with hypochondria read about the side effects of drugs used to treat it? Seems like a bad idea! My advice: If you struggle with irrational health worries, you may want to just take the drugs they give you and not look too closely at the package insert.
(Although I love to read drug side effect warnings if I'm not taking the drug myself. It's kind of fascinating! Coffee-ground vomit? Or another Paxil warning: Males: In the very unlikely event you have a painful, prolonged erection, stop using this drug and seek immediate medical attention or permanent problems could occur. Yikes!)
Besides me and Bossy, is there anyone else out there who sometimes thinks they have dire medical disorders when in reality, they are really Perfectly Fine? Or is it something you don't worry about?