When you hear about a newfangled illness, do you suddenly start developing the symptoms? Like during that whole SARS thing, were you all, "I think I have a fever! And a sore throat!"?
But what happens when you diagnose yourself as having dreaded ailments - routinely? It could mean you have hypochondria, or, in politically correct terms, "health anxiety disorder."
This mental-health quirk includes obsessing over imaginary symptoms and insisting you're sick even when doctors repeatedly declare you healthy. People with the disorder tend to focus on major diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.
So how can you tell the difference between being a plain old worrywart and having an actual syndrome? Ironically, folks neurotic about their health who suspect they are hypochondriacs likely aren't. Those with the disorder are usually not convinced they have a head issue.
The tendency to hyper-focus on ailments is major these days, given the prevalence of "cyberchondria," the habit of checking benign symptoms online and concluding they're indicators of deadly diseases. You know, like when your headache becomes a brain tumour.
A study by Microsoft released Monday "suggests that self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them."
Let's all calm down, shall we?
What the experts say
"Dr. Arthur Barsky says hypochondriacs are very attuned to ordinary physiological sensations, aches and pains, the sorts of things other people might not notice. They misinterpret them and build a catastrophic series of events in their mind. I make the analogy that their wiring is like an older building where the burglar alarm is a little buggy and goes off when there's no burglary. We need to be reasonably sure they're not being burgled and not dismiss every alarm as false. More people have the opposite problem and don't care enough. I don't know that the Internet makes it worse. People used to come in with textbooks. Often people who have hypochondria have known someone who was very ill."
JOSHUA STRAUS, MD, psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, NorthShore University HealthSystem, Evanston, Illinois
"People need to get the proper counselling. Sometimes just hearing from a different authority that nothing is wrong with them helps. A lot of time people don't get the time of day from their doctors, so when somebody really sits down with them, they're okay. I also find acupuncture is very helpful, as well as massage therapy. Certain supplements, like magnesium powder, can help very anxious individuals."
SUSHMA SHAH, naturopathic doctor, Toronto
"The best treatment seems to be cognitive behavioural therapy, but it's hard to deliver because the individual is convinced there is a medical disorder and therefore will not go for psychological treatment. Many hypochondriacs are depressed, so antidepressant medications also help, but that means the individual must accept at some level that the problem is psychological - hence a struggle between ‘The doctor cannot figure out what I have' vs. ‘I have a psych problem.'"
GLEN XIONG, MD, professor, department of psychiatry & behavioral sciences, department of internal medicine, University of California, Davis
"Psychologically, hypochondriasis is a way of distracting oneself from negative emotions or experiences, and also a way of eliciting sympathy and attention. It has been associated with hysteria and the idea that people use their physical body to express emotions they can't bear to express in their mind or in words. Root causes appear to be a lack of adequate parenting in childhood, a sense of invasion or feeling that bad things from the outside will get in. Overprotective parenting can cause hypochondria. What helps it is a combination of empathetic listening and firmness. Some cognitive behavioural techniques work as well."
STEVEN VAN BEEK, psychotherapist, founder, Toronto Therapy Network