By Julia Gumm
This one goes out to all my fellow “hypochondriacs.” You know who you are. In fact, you probably stumbled upon this page because you thought that maybe as a health website, we could assist in diagnosing the buzzing in your ear and the dang sore throat you can’t shake. Maybe this is just a pit stop on your way over to WebMd, where you’ll learn that the ache in your thigh is undoubtedly a blood clot and you have mere minutes left to live. If so, I’m honored to have been part of your last moments on Earth. Ciao.
Seriously though, have you ever been told you’re a hypochondriac? I sure have. For a long time I bought it, and maybe I was. Let’s face facts, I fit the profile of a neurotic headcase. I’ve had a close family member or two keel over dead with no warning (one right in front of my eyes), I’m kind of nutty (or as my sister calls me, a “spazz”) and I don’t happen to believe that the “professionals” know everything. So if I feel like crap and a doctor tells me it’s “nothing” and I don’t believe him, well that must be my hypochondria. Luckily, since hypochondriasis is considered to be an actual disorder (or at least falling under the umbrella of “complex somatic symptom disorder”), there’s hope. Yes, SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), i.e antidepressants, are being prescribed to the silly worrywarts of the world with great success. Imagine that.
To truly be considered a hypochondriac, there is a criteria one has to meet. According to the DSM-IV, the first piece is a “preoccupation with fears of having, or the idea that one has, a serious disease based on the person’s misinterpretation of bodily symptoms.” Ok. Now, why would a person misinterpret their bodily symptoms? For fun? Or perhaps it’s from a lack of information…I’ll give you an example.
Many years ago, I used to freak out over swelling in my armpits that seemed to strike at random. Sometimes it was only in the armpits, other times the swelling spread over to my boobies as well, creating a painful lumpiness throughout- and I wasn’t PMSing. So I’d work myself into a froth trying to figure out what it could possibly be. I, at the time, was not aware of the many changes a gal goes through over the course of the month. Like so many of us, I had the idea that the systems function without incident for three weeks, and for the fourth, it all goes to hell and we get our periods, end of story. Is it any wonder that I then began to fear breast cancer? Lumpy titties nowhere near my period? I had no reason to believe it was normal.
Imagine my relief when I discovered that during ovulation, many women experience classic PMS symptoms, such as swollen breasts. Double relief when I learned that the armpit glands are in cahoots with the bosoms, and swelling in them could be directly attributed to hormonal fluctuations. It’s a good thing I learned about ovulation symptoms when I did, otherwise the recent onset of mittelschmerz (mid-cycle cramping) would have left me in cold sweats, imagining my appendix rupturing or my ovaries filling with tumors. Now that I have a solid understanding of what goes on in my lady parts throughout the month, I’m so much more relaxed. Having an awareness of the hormonal ups and downs that occur throughout the entirety of the month, not just that one maligned week, has granted me the peace of knowing that funky things are happening inside our bodies all the time. Not bad things, necessarily. Normal things. Natural things. Normal doesn’t mean uneventful. And let me tell you what, it sure wasn’t my doctor who explained that to me. His only suggestion was that I go on birth control to see how many of my “symptoms” we could erase. (I politely declined.)
Or there was the time I had a laundry list of scary symptoms that seemed to evade explanation. Weight loss, rashes, fatigue, muscle pain, nerve pain, you name it. Doctor after doctor told me that since they didn’t know what was wrong, therefore, there was nothing wrong. Here, have some Valium, ya nut. When I’d protest, one suggested it was stress. I was willing to buy that, but when I asked how it is that stress can do all that to a body, he just shrugged. No explanation whatsoever. Don’t forget to pay the receptionist on your way out. Call back if something really goes wrong with you. That kind of crap.
All that medical training and no one could take the time to explain to an inquisitive patient that when the body is stressed out, it pulls blood away from the limbs and into the core as a means to protect vital organs, leading to numbness and tension in the extremities? Couldn’t they spend a few minutes on telling me that extreme stress can make the immune system go wild, releasing histamine and causing rashes for no good reason? I guess not. So after paying $145 for an appointment that ended with a prescription to “take a vacation,” I still had no solid answers. People would say to me “but the doctor says you’re fine, so you must be!” Except I knew that I wasn’t.
Lucky for me, I eventually found a doctor who believed me when I said I felt like shit. “You even look like shit” he told me. Boy, that was music to my ears. So he ran a bunch of tests that the other white coats failed to do and guess what. It kinda sorta was stress that was making me sick. I was so stressed out that I exhausted my poor wittle adrenal glands. In retaliation, they went on strike and I was muddling through life without their help, which can lead to all sorts of rotten feelings. Once I knew what the issue was, I was able to tailor a healing protocol that made sense. After a year of barely being able to get out of bed, I was swimming in the ocean and playing on the beach after just three weeks of targeted treatment And it was all because of my danged persistent “hypochondria.” Yes, my belief that there was something wrong with me even though something like fifteen doctors told me there wasn’t is part of hypochondriac criteria…”The preoccupation persists despite appropriate medical evaluation and reassurance.” I guess it all depends on what one considers “appropriate.”
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that those folks who wake up every day imagining they have cancer and tuberculosis and elephantiasis, just ‘cuz, can be cured by information. Those folks probably need professional help. And their access to WebMD forever blocked.
But I have a belief that most of us who consider outrageous possibilities when confronted with a change in how we feel do so because we lack information. Everything happening to us then falls into the category of “the unknown.” And as a fragile being encased in nothin’ but skin broken out in hives, “the unknown” is a disconcerting place to be. Worst-case scenarios play out through our heads like movie reels, and you know what, that’s not crazy. Because the fact is, bad things do happen. People do keel over dead for no apparent reason. Cancer does grow in human bodies. Even elephantiasis can happen. Probably not in a developed nation, but whatever. It exists. Telling yourself that these things can’t happen to you is foolish and if you’re a critical thinker, you’re not gonna buy it anyway. So instead of trying to think “positively,” think realistically. And part of being realistic is getting a clear idea of what your reality really is. For reals.
Now this is important, listen up. The cure for your garden variety “hypochondria” is information. Lots of it. Not the kind you get from Googling “elephantiasis symptoms” and matching them to your own… (my God, my testicles ARE huge! Save me Jeebus!) I’m talking about a thorough understanding of what each of your organs do, how they do it and what kinds of foods or activities might get them upset (like greasy foods and the gallbladder or too much sex and the urethra). I’m talking about learning just what a rash is, why the immune system does it and what you’re doing that could bring it on. I mean understanding that having beets and cherry juice at dinner can make your poop dark red, so you’ll want to keep that in mind before you decide you’re hauling around a bloody tumor in your colon. Boy, have I been there. Wow. What a night.
And then there are your personal patterns. When I’m dehydrated, my fingertips prune up. This happens pretty easily if I don’t get enough salt, probably in light of my adrenal crisis the other year. One day, I got a potassium-packed fresh juice at the health food store, drank it with a bottle of water and by the time I got home I looked like I had been in the tub for two hours. I put some salt under my tongue, bada-bing-bada-boom. Problem solved. I now know that keeping my electrolytes in balance is key for me. I get the pruned fingertips whenever I decide that tea and fruit is the best way to start my day. Bullshit. I need salted butter and Gatorade. But had I Googled it, I’d be fretting over Lyme disease and Hypothyroidism. Nope. Pass the salt.
When you really get on a roll with understanding how your body works, you’ll begin to see the ridiculousness of the “Google my symptoms and freak out” approach. Like with the wrinkled fingertips, you’re gonna get that whenever your electrolytes are out of whack because it’ll dehydrate you. Now, there are a lot of reasons your electrolytes can go all screwy. A long illness like Lyme can do it, I’m sure, as it’s a big tax on your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands, along with the kidneys (who the adrenals sit on top of) govern the concentration of electrolytes in the body. Mess with the adrenals, mess with your electrolyte levels. And a lot of stuff can mess with your adrenals. Addison’s disease, thyroid imbalance, pituitary disorder, just plain stress. Now to me, that’s reassuring. I know to some of you noobs, that probably sounds anything but. “Great,” you’re saying. “She’s telling me that my symptoms could be caused by anything, even a fatal condition. Perfect.”
No no no. What I’m saying is this: Weird symptoms are not solely the territory of freaky diseases. Strange happenings are the body’s business. It’s how it seeks equilibrium. It’s what it needs to do to process all the garbage you put it through and to tell you it needs some TLC. A fever, while it could mean you have a monstrous parasitic infection could just as well be telling of a measly virus or bit of inflammation that the body is dealing with, thank you very much. Constipation can come on from hormonal fluctuations, depression can come from your life sucking and tummy aches can come from nervousness. And there are good, solid, understandable reasons for all of it, good reasons you can seek and find.
But if you treat yourself for the innocuous causes of your symptoms and they still persist, go ahead and see your doctor. And when they roll their eyes, tell you you’re “fine” and start pushing the Prozac, you go ahead and give them your iciest glare. Say “Listen pal. I know what fine feels like, and this ain’t it. I realize I could be seeing spots because I’m tired and my testicles could be this huge because I’m a fine specimen of manhood, but I checked into all those avenues. No dice. I want some thorough tests, please and thank you.”
And stay off of WebMd. That’s an order. Sheesh.