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Dear Dr. Batya,
I have a problem which I suspect is fairly rare. I find myself obsessed with illness. With each ache and pain I get, I become convinced that I have something terribly wrong with me. It can range from a spot to a lump. When I check it out on the computer, I often become more convinced that something is truly wrong, and then when I am totally in a panic, I start driving my family crazy. They are ready to disown me and now ignore any complaint that I have. Please help me out. Thanks.
It may come as quite a surprise to you to discover that you certainly are not alone in your fears. Many people find an ache, a pain, a bump or a lump and immediately think that something is wrong. Often their next step is to head to the computer and when checking out their complaint, they often find they have some or many of the other listed symptoms that may go along with their main concern or primary complaint.
These symptoms may be vague and may affect anyone at any given point in time, but when we have them we often forget how common and normal they can be and it can throw us into a panic. The computer can be great for clearing up confusion, providing additional information or even helping to determine if you need to see a doctor. Sometimes our concerns are so private that while we would not seek outside help because we'd simply be too embarrassed, advice found on the computer can reassure us that all is okay or even give us much needed answers.
That said, there is a time and a place for accessing computer information and only you can decide how to best use it. Be careful though, as once you clear up one set of problems, another soon crops up and you may be back again checking things out. If you are beginning to see a pattern and it is more than an isolated incident, you may need to seek professional help.
The first place you may want to turn to is your own physician. The relationship with him or her must be open and trusting. Do your homework before going and let him know just how concerning this problem is to you and what questions you have. Ask yourself if you understood what he said. This is especially true of unexpected or bad news. Don't be afraid to take notes and remember - the only foolish question is the unasked one. Your concerns are important, so if you have saved up your list of complaints, you should let the secretary know that you may need the last appointment of the day or a double time slot. You need to feel heard and have a good relationship with your doctor in order to trust him and feel understood. If you don't feel you can talk to him, after you let him know your concerns find a new physician whom you can relate to better.
Sometimes your doctor may suggest you simply talk with someone about all of your concerns. Many clients coming to see me are afraid that they really do have something terrible going on and at the moment it has yet to be diagnosed. We talk about this and explore how much of the concern is based in reality or is rational.
We all would love to take a walk through my imaginary "magic cancer machine." This little machine would fit inside my doorway and as you walked through the door, the light would flash green or red. If it were green, you could go about your day as if all was well with the world. If it was red, it would indicate that something is not quite right in your body and needs further checking.
In truth, as educated consumers of medicine, we need to be in touch with our bodies so that we can determine whether something may really be wrong or if we are just feeling anxious that something could go wrong. These are very different. For those truly obsessed with their thoughts who can't let it go, more intensive work may be indicated. Many medical issues may have a concomitant psychological component due to the nature of the problem per se (e.g. moodiness from being on a medication, rage outburst as a result of a head injury). Likewise, some underlying anxiety, issue, fear, phobia, concern about death, a major loss, or even depression, might all be playing a role and a person may feel quite unwell physically when the problems are psychological in nature.
At the end of the day, you determine how you view your own health. Being a good consumer requires trusting yourself to make informed decisions. Good luck.
Dr. Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. Send correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org, visit her Web site at http://go.to/drbatyaludman or call 09-771-8815.