Hypochondria. More formally called hypochondriasis; and more usually these days referred to medically as “health anxiety disorder”. Hypochondria is one of the most miserable conditions ever to be treated as a bit of a joke by your mates.
Hypochondriacs suffer (and yes, we really do suffer) with a chronic, more or less intense anxiety about their health. Often this is focused on a particular part of the body, or a conviction that they’re suffering with a serious disease or condition. Often, they’ll experience symptoms – often very minor in themselves – that they see as consistent with the condition they’re fixated on, reinforcing the belief.
Recently I was talking to a friend, someone who, for many years, has lived with a hypochondria focused on his heart. At the height of his suffering he believed, quite sincerely, that he was dying: every day-to-day twinge he felt in chest or arm was evidence of an impending heart attack; and the anxiety this caused actually generated more severe symptoms. It’s extraordinary what physical effects anxiety can create.
The focus of my own health anxiety has always been, primarily, stroke. For me, too, every headache has been a herald of doom – especially, as odd as it may sound – the less severe ones. An actual headache will often feel less worrying than a brief and/or localised jab, throb or wave. Couple this with my history of migraine – an annoying variant with little actual pain but a multitude of other effects (visual disturbances chief among them) – and you have a recipe for some pain-in-the-ass bouts of mortal dread. And a recent tendency towards indigestion sent me running to the GP once again, with a new-found obsession over my own heart.
My friend, I think, is a lot better now. Hypochondria never really goes away: like many mental health problems, its causes are complex and likely there’s no single root. I wouldn’t presume his health anxiety has gone, but he seems to be on top of it at the moment. And he made a comment the other day – a very realistic, undeniably true comment that nevertheless made me shiver even as I was agreeing with him.
“The worst thing about our condition,” he said, “Is that one day we will be right.” And it’s true. We’re getting older; I’m not as active as I should be. My diet isn’t the best. He’s right: sooner or later it’ll happen. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this time. Last night I had a pretty intense and protracted dizzy spell. With symptoms starting in earnest at about 2300 and being still well in effect at 0300, I went to see an out-of-hours doctor, who again seemed happy it wasn’t anything too urgent. A reprieve, then.
He gave me anti-dizziness pills which seem for the time being to be doing the trick. I have another appointment on Monday. Yet now the worry is that the symptoms shouldn’t have gone away that easily.
Because that’s how hypochondria works: no reassurance is reassurance enough. Is it best for a doctor to indulge the anxiety? Arranging test after test to chase down mysterious and ever-changing symptoms, and perhaps provide some temporary assurance that doom may not come today? Or is it better to have a doctor say, “Stop wasting my time; there’s nothing wrong with you”? Because I dread to think how much NHS time and money I’ve used up over the years. In America, of course, the question would have a more immediate financial relevance. What good is reassurance if you bankrupt yourself looking for it?
In the end, call it hypochondria or health anxiety; call it over-cautiousness or a waste of Health Service time; what it comes down to is fear. Fear – the broadest and most compelling path to the Dark Side. And that is something I’m very familiar with indeed.