(Faking it till you make it and the cure for hypochondria)
If you’re old enough, you might remember the iconic Memorex television commercials from the 1970s in which jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald shatters a wine glass with her voice. Then, the playback of a recording of Fitzgerald on Memorex tape shatters another. The announcer asks: “Is it live or is it Memorex?”
More on Memorex in a moment. But first, a brief trip down memory lane.
Although I was a good student, like many other children, I hated going to school.
Sometimes I was sick and got to stay home. I didn’t particularly like being sick, but staying home made up for it. My mother made me soup, brought me toast and tea, I could watch cartoons all morning. And I didn’t have to deal with the alienation I felt at school, long before I’d ever heard that word.
By the time I hit third grade, I’d learned to feign illness, thereby unofficially extending school holidays by several days a year. But sometimes, when I really did feel sick, sick enough to call Dr. Sax for a home visit, he couldn’t find anything wrong with me.
Were my symptoms live — signs of a real illness — or Memorex, a fake so convincing it even fooled me?
These were the early stages of what grew into hypochondria. The full-fledged anxiety disorder didn’t blossom until I was out of college, but when it did, it took the form I now, as a therapist, also recognize in some of my clients.
Maybe you know someone with hypochondria, too. Here are some of the typical indicators:
- Interpreting a normal sensation as a sign of the worst disease it could be (for example, a headache means brain cancer).
- Repeatedly checking for indications of illness or disease.
- Preoccupation with symptoms and possible illness throughout the day.
- Obsessively researching symptoms of illness, causes, and treatments on the Internet.
- Frequently seeking emergency treatment.
- Avoiding treatment because of fear of “hearing the worst.”
- Being so distressed about possible illness that it's hard to function.
Hypochondria, now called Illness Anxiety Disorder, is in the same family as panic disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, and OCD. And like these disorders, it often persists for years and is the cause of considerable suffering.
The good news is that it’s also fairly easy for most people to overcome if they follow some simple steps.
Here’s how I overcame my hypochondria and how many of my hypochondriacal clients have overcome theirs.
I began by asking other people what they did when they were concerned about a physical symptom. I asked questions such as:
- When you feel sick, how do you decide when to go to a doctor or emergency room?
- How long do you wait?
- Do you look up symptoms to see what they mean, or leave that to the doctor?
From the answers to these and similar questions, I developed these rules:
- If something’s bothering me, and the symptoms are severe enough to prevent me from functioning, consider getting medical attention immediately.
- If the symptoms are similar to something I’ve had before that gets better on its own, watch them.
- If, after a week, the symptoms are starting to improve, see if they continue to get better on their own.
- Or if, after a week, the symptoms are worse, seek medical attention.
- Repeat steps 1 - 4.
- Don’t research symptoms on the Internet for more than a few minutes.
By following these simple steps, I was able to behave as if I were a “normal” person. By deviating from my hypochondriacal pattern, I gave myself the opportunity to experience how symptoms often resolved on their own. When I really was sick, I also experienced how to respond appropriately to symptoms that didn’t resolve.
Each time I repeated the “normal” process, I found that my anxiety slightly decreased, and as time passed, hypochondria itself also resolved. The question “Is it live or is it Memorex?” has, for me and illness, gone the way of Memorex tapes themselves, on about the same schedule (they were out of business by 1996).
This strategy is a form of “faking it till you make it,” the same approach people with addictive disorders use to become, and then to stay, sober. Faking it till you make it allows new patterns of behavior to replace old ones by letting you try out the new patterns even if you're not ready to fully adopt them.
I hope these tips can help you or someone you know.
In the comments, I'd love to hear about your direct or indirect experience with hypochondria.
Copyright 2018, David J. Bookbinder
Nonfiction by David J. Bookbinder
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.com
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.co.uk