According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (the bible of mental problems published by the American Psychiatric Association), hypochondria "is preoccupation with fears of having, or the idea that one has, a serious disease based on a misinterpretation of one or more bodily signs or symptoms." For example, if you think that because your stool looks funky, it almost certainly means you have colon cancer, congratulations, you're a hypochondriac.
Hypochondriacs don't usually just sit back cowering in fear, waiting for the inevitable appearance of death at their door with his trusty scythe. They don't want to die. And so they heap more trouble on themselves by heading to the doctor and demanding tests, medicine, anything that will "cure" them.
Some hypochondriacs have had so many blood tests, they'll criticize the technique of the phlebotomists, naturally convinced their poor skills at drawing blood will lead to flawed test results – a mistake that will thus force doctors to miss a critical problem, which will end, in due course, in death. Frustrated by doctors who seemingly don't take their sicknesses seriously, hypochondriacs are prone to change physicians as often as Lady Gaga changes hairstyles. The hypochondriac is quick to think that no one understands just how sick they really truly are.
Ironically, one of the major problems for hypochondriacs is too much information. The proliferation of health websites has been a huge boon for those people inclined toward self-diagnoses. Have a pain in the lower abdomen? A quick search on "appendicitis" instantly reveals the symptoms of this classic condition, allowing the average person to decide, rationally, whether to call an ambulance or not.
For hypochondriacs, however, visiting WebMd or the Mayo Clinic's website is like walking into a house of horrors. Everywhere they turn there's another terrifying illness, syndrome, or condition waiting to jump out at them and drag them into the abyss of sickness and death.
In The Hypochondriac's Handbook, I focus primarily on rare conditions, and the truth is your average hypochondriac wouldn't easily come across illnesses such as carrot addiction or hypertrichosis. Hypochondriacs are usually focused on more common sicknesses like cancer and AIDS, or diseases-of-the-week like swine flu.
So to the hypochondriacs out there, I do apologize for adding to your list of worries. But just think, it's so much more interesting to believe you have flesh-eating bacteria or dissociative fugue rather than some run-of-the-mill ailment. And for that I say, "You're welcome."
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