Fábregas: There's a little hypochondriac in all of us — we're just wired that way
It's that time of the year when some of us who can't shake a nagging cough suddenly think we have tuberculosis.
It happens to you, too. A symptom sneaks up, and the worst illness springs to mind. A headache means a brain tumor. A cough becomes lung cancer. A stomach ache is Crohn's disease.
Even reading something in the newspaper about a disease outbreak has the power to convince us that “I have that!” It happened a few months ago when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa dominated headlines. And it's happened with respiratory viruses like SARS, bird flu, MERS and West Nile. When we read about an outbreak of salmonella or E. coli, boom, we give that burger or bag of lettuce a hard look before eating it.
There's a little bit of a hypochondriac in all of us. We're just wired that way.
“It's normal. We've all been in that position,” Dr. Priya Gopalan, a psychiatrist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, told me this week. “The fact that everyone has such easy access to information makes it so much worse.”
That's right. Blame it on the Internet. We can now spend hours in front of a laptop, sorting through symptoms, visiting chat rooms and analyzing detailed pictures of cells, tumors, viruses and other assorted pathogens. Some psychologists call it cyberchondria, a term that perfectly describes our obsession with online search engines and our propensity to self-diagnose.
Gopalan told me the term “hypochondria” we've heard in the past is no longer acceptable in the medical setting. “It implies it's all in your head, and you should be able to suck it up and deal with it,” she said.
The preferred medical term, somatic symptom disorder, doesn't quite roll off the tongue but can be quite serious. Gopalan said Western Psych sees lots of patients who often come in with unexplained physical symptoms that can't be traced to a physical cause. Some patients don't have symptoms yet worry about an illness.
This is serious stuff because some patients can have an underlying mental illness that's causing the problem, be it depression, obsessive compulsive disorder or something else, Gopalan said.
“The hypochondriasis might just be the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
So how does anyone know when they need professional help, I asked Gopalan, well aware that I've often concluded I have any of the dozens of illnesses I've written about over the years. Her answer made sense: When reassurance by your doctor that you are perfectly fine isn't enough to convince you. When you've had testing of your physical symptoms and they reveal nothing, that's when you should seek psychiatric treatment, she said.
That's not to say we all should be heading to a psychiatrist. It's normal to feel down at this time of the year, Gopalan said. That's especially true for those of us who live in this tundra-esque part of the country. As this newspaper reported, we've set lots of unpleasant weather records this week. At last count, we managed to record six subzero days this month.
It's been so cold that Sunday's predicted high temperature of 41 degrees likely will feel like summer. Watch: Many people will break out shorts and flip-flops. I might be one of them.
Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or email@example.com.