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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Q. Could you give me information about the background or history for hypochondria? Are there any Internet websites on it?

A. Hypochondriasis is essentially an excessive preoccupation with bodily functions, accompanied by the intense belief that those functions are actually due to serious medical illness. For example, the individual with hypochondriasis may believe that normal stomach rumbling indicates an underlying cancer or bowel obstruction. He or she maintains this belief despite repeated and extensive medical reassurance and diagnostic testing.

The syndrome has been recognized since the days of the Roman physician Galen (ca. 130-200 AD), and was described under the term hypochondriacal melancholy by the great 16th century scholar Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy. The French playwright Moliere took a rather sardonic view of hypochondriasis in his classic comedy, "The Imaginary Invalid"--perhaps laying the groundwork for our modern tendency to poke fun at hypochondriacs. This is unfortunate, since people with hypochondriasis are often subject to a good deal of personal misery, anxiety and depression.

For more detailed information, you may want to see the book "Hypochondriasis: Modern Perspectives on an Ancient Malady", by Drs. V. Starcevic and D.R. Lipsitt. As far as websites, you may want to see the "self-test" for hypochondriasis using the Whiteley Index (http://www.uib.no/med/avd/med_a/gastro/wilhelms/whiteley.html).

And while we should never make fun of those with hypochondriasis, I am reminded of that cautionary tale concerning the hypochondriac's epitaph--it read simply, "I told you I was sick."

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July 2001

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