Any person who is eventually diagnosed with a chronic illness (especially autoimmune disease) will have likely been first labelled a hypochondriac. The likelihood of that happening at least doubles if they are gendered female.
The medical profession has a long history of labelling women as emotionally labile and as unreliable reporters of their own symptoms.
HYSTERIA: A psychological disorder (not now regarded as a single definite condition) whose symptoms include conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization), selective amnesia, shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior. The term has a controversial history as it was formerly regarded as a disease specific to women. (source: Google)
For women, complaints of headaches, generalized aches and pains, and the feeling that ‘something isn’t right’ with their bodies are dismissed as somehow illegitimate, either because of the emotional state of the patients reporting them, or simply the perceived propensity towards emotion by women as a whole. Even if the symptoms are given some credence, the phrase “somatic complaints” gets thrown around: Either the complaints are fake because women are over-emotional, or they are real but are caused by women being over-emotional. It’s a double-bind dilemma from which there isn’t an easy escape: Either way, genuine issues end up being delegitimized and important diagnoses end up being missed.
SOMATIZATION: Conversion of a mental state (as depression or anxiety) into physical symptoms; also : the existence of physical bodily complaints in the absence of a known medical condition. (source: Merriam-Webster)
If a doctor is convinced that a patient’s complaints are mental in nature, then by all means pursuing further evaluation to determine the source of those psychological issues, whether it be depression or anxiety, is warranted. However in many cases, that doesn’t seem to be the next step — a doctor will dismiss the symptoms as emotional manifestations and provide no further treatment; which begs the question as to whether they would do the same if the patient was male and presented with the same complaints.
Part of the challenge, undoubtedly, is the fact that women routinely have to deal with unpredictable aches and pains which are considered to be a normal part of our lives. Hormonal swings and surges, headaches, monthly bleeding, childbearing, childbirth, menopause — the list goes on. Women are constantly subject to changes in our bodies which we are expected to accept without question. For the most part, we don’t complain (to our doctors, at least), except when something is different or unexplained.
This is not something for which we should be discredited.
If anything, women should be (in general, as a whole) given special credence when it comes to self-reporting. Most women are taught and groomed to be more aware of their bodies and the changes that occur: It’s perfectly normal that we become aware of changes, and become aware of them early.
Of course the problem with catching wind of things in the early stages of illness is that not all of the diagnostic signs may be evident yet. That takes time. That takes testing, and ruling out multiple hypotheses before you lock down the right diagnosis. Which is all the more reason for not dismissing what may seem like vague and non-specific complaints: Further monitoring is necessary to determine what will develop.
If somatization is by definition physical symptoms in the absence of a physical cause, for it to be labelled as such, you have to wait long enough to determine that no cause will present itself.
The assumption is that anxiety or depression are causing the physical symptoms, when the reality is that for many, anxiety and depression are themselves symptoms of their illness.
MALAISE: A general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify. (source: Google)
In the early stages of disease, the physical changes which are happening within the body cause anxiety in the patient both due to the unexplained nature of their physical symptoms, as well as from very real physical changes and damage. Many diseases, especially autoimmune illnesses, involve whole-body changes that affect the systems which control cortisol levels, adrenalin, and mood.
“Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.”
When your body is quite literally under attack, being hyper-aware of that fact and taking note of what may seem like innocuous changes is just good crisis management. What gets misconstrued for hypochondria is really just a form of hypervigilance.
For many chronically-ill people, the notion that they are hypochondriacal is reinforced by their conversation patterns and behaviours. They readily talk about each new ache and pain, and rattle off the results of their latest doctors’ visits. For the people around them, this can seem both self-obsessed and a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you keep talking about being sick, you’re going to get sicker. [NB. That’s not how that works.]
But again, it’s a no-win situation for the sick person. As patients we are trained to rattle off our symptoms to each and every medical professional we meet. We are expected to be self-aware and to advocate for ourselves. We have to do research into our diseases and be ready to steer our care in the appropriate direction. Being aware and informed about our bodies (and about illness in general) is about self-preservation. It’s not that unusual that we might want to talk about it and share information, just as anyone would share other parts of their lives with the people closest to them.
HYPOCHONDRIA: Abnormal anxiety about one’s health, especially with an unwarranted fear that one has a serious disease. (source: Google)
Hypochondria is a clinical term. It describes an abnormal obsession with sickness. Labelling someone who is anxious about their health (or who presents with an as-yet-unidentified illness) a hypochondriac is akin to calling someone who likes a tidy house obsessive-compulsive. When it’s done by a medical professional, it’s harmful and dismissive. When it’s done by your friends or family, it’s hurtful and ostracizing.
Anxiety isn’t something to be so quickly dismissed — while clinical levels of anxiety can be paralyzing, anxiety in its initial stages is often a warning sign. It’s your body’s way of signalling that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Listening to that signal can save your life.