Why the internet can help people deal with hypochondria

Caroline Crampton was a teenager when a cancer diagnosis shattered her sense of security in her own body.

Crampton was declared healthy a few years later, but she never shook the feeling that the cancer would return. That fear morphed into a constant anxiety that his body would fail him again.

Crampton, a journalist, said he experiences hypochondria, excessive worry about being or getting sick. She’s not alone in having this anxiety, but she can feel isolated, she said.

In his new book, A Body Made of Glass: A Cultural History of Hypochondria, Crampton explores the roots of the condition.

Here are some of Cramptons findings and how they have helped her manage her anxiety. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did people start experiencing hypochondria?

Hypochondria is actually a very old word. It is in the works of [classical Greek physician] Hippocrates in the 5th century BC, but he didn’t mean what we use today. It was an anatomical term that described part of the abdomen known as the hypochondriac.

Then the word goes on this incredible journey of over a thousand years and more, to stop being such an anatomical, body-descriptive word, and become what we know today: a purely mental health illness, something to do with symptoms . it is only perceived in the mind that it is experienced as anxiety.

You start having hypochondriacs as we know them today in the late 18th, early 19th century. A slang term of the time was used in literary London: people described themselves as feeling hypnotic, short for hypochondriac. Get the people [poets] Byron and Alexander Pope are described as hypnotists at that time and later.

In tracing the history of hypochondria, you have also written a history of quack doctors and snake oil remedies. Do you see parallels between this story and today’s wellness industry?

In many functional ways, they are the same thing. I recently interviewed a doctor who said that today’s industry of wellness influencers and the supplements offered in this area is medicine from the 1750s, just with different brands.

People end up talking to charlatans, with their peculiar tinctures and balms, etc., because they are not treated well by their official suppliers. But it also has to do with a new and emerging idea that we have about health, which is that instead of health being just the state of not being sick, we’ve now encapsulated health as something that can be optimized, improved and improve That it is not enough to not be sick, that you can always be month well, you can always be better. And that’s how you end up having even people with no diagnosed health problems taking lots of different supplements and trying different diets and doing all kinds of things that a doctor would say aren’t entirely necessary.

Do you have any tips for using the internet to manage health anxiety?

It is a force for good in the sense that it helps people better advocate for themselves, especially people who have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream medicine. It means they can back up what they are told. But on the other hand, you can also go down a 12-hour rabbit hole Googling what you think might be in your leg, and you can read some truly awful things that, in all likelihood, have nothing to do with you and your symptoms.

Now I think a lot about when I was first diagnosed with cancer. It was 2006. The internet existed and was widely used, but it wasn’t yet a portable thing that we carried with us the way we do today. But even then, my oncology team was worried about what they might find on the Internet. So I remember one of my early treatment appointments, the nurse gave me this printed list that she had made and said, Don’t Google your cancer. But if you are looking for it, these are the websites I would recommend. And on the list was, because I’m in the UK, the NHS [the National Health Service] website, a couple of academic publishers who may have relevant journal articles, a couple of cancer charities who made patient guides. And now, almost 20 years later, it’s still what I try to stick to.

How has this research changed the way you think about your health?

I have never been so in touch with my body. I’ve never been someone good at sports or physically coordinated. And then when I got cancer, it was so easy to break up like, well, I am this way. And then it’s over there my body has cancer

Writing the book really forced me to confront this, and learn a lot more about the mind-body relationship as it is understood now and as it has been seen for centuries; and all the different biological systems that work in a given second, understanding it a little better gave me this sense of intense and rather cheesy wonder for it all. And it also gave me the feeling that, no, I am all of this. There is no separation.

Do you think there is a cure for hypochondria?

I personally think it’s just part of being human.

But that said, there are evidence-based treatments that have emerged in the last three or four decades. There have been some very good results with SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors], commonly prescribed as antidepressants. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been very helpful for some people. It can force you to consider your mortality, because that’s what CBT is so much about, constantly asking the question: What’s the worst that could happen here?

I interviewed a few different therapists when I was writing the book, and one of them described the regimen he would prescribe to someone who, for example, had the fairly common health anxiety fear of riding public transportation and then getting sick . She would suggest that they take a bus ride and when they get off the bus they have to lick each other’s hand, which as someone with this particular fear is unimaginable. And a week later, we say: Are we sick? And the answer, overwhelmingly likely, will be no. And then you just have to internalize that fact and say, OK, well, I did my worst. I ran in the direction of fear and nothing bad happened. And it does this again and again and again until the anxiety response has subsided. So yes, I can definitely attest to the usefulness of this. Of course, it requires the will to do it. It’s a lot of work.

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