Who hasn’t had a pain or a rash and run to Google? That’s where things get complicated and it rarely ends anywhere other than Freak Out Town.
Journalist Louise Carpenter wrote a piece for The Observer about her own harrowing, exhausting experience with hypochondria or health anxiety (as it’s referred to today) which began in her teens but became a whole new beast when she had children.
Louise recounts her anxiety – from believing she has MS to melanoma and back again -she writes in part
“Health anxiety, as hypochondria is called now, is on the increase, another product of our privileged but stressful times. Up to one in 10 of us suffers from some kind of anxiety problem during our lifetime, and GPs are now seeing more cases in which this is manifested in health. And yet while people nod and agree in sympathy whenever the word is spoken, hardly anybody will own up to it publicly. If they do, it is usually in the form of some kind of joke on themselves, a way of saying “Aren’t I funny?” rather than “Aren’t I mad?”.
It began, I think, when I was 16 and studying for my O-levels. It’s almost a joke now to recognise that my Saturday job was in a pharmacy. When punters came in with their urine samples, I’d carry them to the pharmacist’s pill-lined lair as if I were Florence Nightingale herself. One Saturday at the shop I collapsed. My face went numb and my arms and hands went tingly. I was drowsy, and I heard the pharmacist say to one of the other assistants: “Call a doctor – I think she’s having a stroke.” I was taken home and put to bed. Our GP diagnosed hyperventilation. It happened again, about four years later when I was at Pisa airport. I was tired and hadn’t eaten. Around this time, I think, migraines started. About a year later, when I was particularly unhappy in a new job, I had another terrifying episode of numbness. I was referred to a neurologist and I had a brain scan. My brain was fine. He tested my reflexes, I assume for multiple sclerosis. He gave me the all-clear but told me to come off the contraceptive pill because of a “predisposition towards strokes”. I skipped off content I was fine, but in fact I cannot say that that was that. In the back of my mind I convinced myself I had MS, although you’d think it would be a stroke I would have feared more. But still, I was young and only had myself to worry about.
Over the past five years, since the birth of my three children, I estimate that I have been to the doctor’s more times than in the preceding two decades. Unlike some hypochondriacs, there is some part of me that recognises the neurosis, but I find myself in a loop; that talking myself out of a surgery visit might be seen as an act of hubris for which I’ll be punished. It’s a lose-lose situation. There is no logic here.
The Greek word “hypochondria” roughly translates as “below the ribcage”. Over the past 3,000 years it was used to explain indigestion, then melancholia, then neurosis and then, finally, “a misplaced fear of illness based on misinterpretation of bodily symptoms”. Statistics have been bandied about by doctors: the equivalent of one day a week of surgery time lost to these perfectly healthy people; up to 13% of us worrying about our health when we might not have done in the past.
There have been two other major shifts in society. The first is the rise of the internet, which has spawned “cyberchondria”. Health is now the second-most popular internet search topic after pornography. Millions of people tap symptoms and diseases into Google and wait for some dreadful outcome. I am an aficionado of these sites (my favourite is the NHS site). We terrify ourselves as we read information we do not understand and use to justify our worst fears.
The second change is the role of the GP. As one told me recently: “People don’t trust their GPs any more. We haven’t the time to give patients what they need, and it’s resulted in a breakdown of trust. They go on the internet themselves.”
Have you ever suffered from hypochondria? Checked Google for symptoms of an illness? or even diagnosed yourself online?