By Angela Haupt for U.S. News Health
Headache? It must be a brain tumor. Bruise on your leg? Leukemia. Slightly nauseous? Either cancer or a heart attack.
Welcome to the life of a hypochondriac.
We've become a nation of them, says Catherine Belling, an assistant professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. In her new book "A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria", she explores our increasing anxiety about our health, as well as the way hypochondriacs are perceived by the public and their doctors. "Hypochondria is not a mental illness, so much as it is an extremely irrational response to the uncertainty of medicine," she says. "We think of these people as silly, as demanding attention they don't really need. But no doctor can ever tell you that you're 100 percent healthy and will be forever. It causes a lot of misery and becomes a real nightmare for patients and doctors."
People who suffer from hypochondria make frequent doctors' appointments, insist on unnecessary tests, and see physical illness where medicine says there is none. They fret needlessly over diseases that procedures prove they don't have. They're obsessed with the idea that a disease is lurking, awaiting the right doctor and diagnosis. They experience ordinary discomforts more intensely than others, sinking often into a full-blown panic. They grow angry with physicians who fail to acknowledge sinister symptoms.
One driving factor, Belling argues, is that we're constantly being bombarded with messages telling us we might be sick, even if we have no symptoms. Public health pushes call for disease awareness months and an emphasis on early detection and screening; people are overly alert to symptoms and eager to get tested. "It's a massive contributor," she says. "We're being trained to think like hypochondriacs: 'Just because I feel fine, doesn't mean there's not something developing inside me right now.'"
Hypochondria affects about one out of every 20 Americans. Here's how to cope, or at least better manage it.
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