This article originally appeared on VICE Español.
Let’s talk about fear, health and why so many of us have decided that sitting in front of the computer googling symptoms is a sensible thing to do. Let’s talk about the evenings we’ve spent boring ourselves and our friends with all manner of internet-derived self-diagnoses. Let’s talk about hypochondria.
We live in a world where certain words and concepts are bandied about daily despite many of us lacking a medical background to make sense of them. We link symptoms with illnesses and try to come up with solutions without consulting professionals. We tell ourselves and others stories about our bodies and our health and everything that’s going wrong with them.
That kind of health anxiety may have led to you being labelled — or labelling others — as a hypochondriac. But what exactly is hypochondria? What are its symptoms, and what, if anything, can we do about it? We asked Santiago Levín, president of the Association of Argentine Psychiatrists (AAP) to fill in the blanks.
VICE: What exactly does hypochondria mean?
Santiago Levín: Daily language can change the meaning of technical medical terms. Think about obsessive compulsive disorder, for example. You might often hear people labelling themselves as having OCD, when in reality they just exhibit a few tics, or perhaps some repetitive behaviour.
Hypochondria, in a strict sense, isn’t just being a bit worried about your health. It isn’t being a bit scared of getting a serious illness. Neither is it a case of feeling worried about your health in the middle of a world-changing pandemic. Health anxiety in a situation like the one we’re living through is normal, appropriate, and expected.
Actual hypochondria is a lot less common than the anxieties I’ve just described. It is a real mental illness that can appear in different forms and to varying degrees. It can be part of depression, it can be part of a personality disorder, it can be part of psychosis. But it can also be, in its mild and occasional forms, part of a normal and expected response to the times you’re living through. But I have to stress that it is never a good idea to pathologise daily life. That is to turn normal, habitual experiences into pathological ones.
How would one know if they are actually experiencing hypochondria?
You’ll likely be undergoing constant suffering, with a lot of anxiety and accompanying depression, and the idea of being ill is inescapable. The true hypochondriac consults professionals constantly and never, ever finds the answer they’re looking for. It should be stressed, however, that just because someone has hypochondria doesn’t mean they can’t get physically ill. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Can it be treated and managed?
Yes. The treatment will depend on the specific diagnosis, that is, the origin and severity of the hypochondriac symptom. If it’s within the context of depression, say, we will look to treat the depression. There will usually be a psychotherapeutic aspect to the treatment and often there will be a psychopharmacological element to it also. Many cases of hypochondriac symptoms get better with treatment, but sadly some are very, very difficult to treat. These are rare but pose very real challenges.
Is it possible that hypochondriac syndrome could be triggered by a global social context like the one we’re living through?
Obviously, a global health crisis is a distressing thing for all of us. No part of the world is coming out of the COVID pandemic unscathed when it comes to mental health.
In fact, last year saw the General Secretary of the UN, António Guterres calling on nations across the world to raise budgets for mental health in an attempt to stave off an avalanche of global mental health crises.
That being said, some people have benefited from the pandemic, from a mental health perspective. For those who find meeting or simply being around other people extremely difficult, the various restrictive measures we’ve seen implemented across the world since early 2020 have perhaps been useful. But this is a very small group and most people have suffered and continue to suffer due to a health disaster which has changed our lives — individually and collectively — in a radical way, and this includes people who suffer from cases that are accompanied by hypochondriac symptoms.
Do you have any advice for people beginning to confront the issue?
My advice is simple: If what’s happening to you is really worrying you, causing you real distress, is stopping you from sleeping at night and is actively lowering your quality of life, the moment has come to seek help from a professional. A problem shared is a problem halved.