Despite official recognition in the DSM, those with hypochondriasis are often treated with the respect and seriousness of a Scott Baio film festival. “It’s an obsession, and oftentimes people don’t want to listen to someone’s obsessions,” says Gail Martz-Nelson, a Denver psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders. “‘I’m terrified I have HIV, I’m terrified I have cancer, I’m terrified I have lymphoma.’ People hear that and dismiss it or laugh it off. But being a hypochondriac can be crippling. It’s not a joke.”
Generally speaking, hypochondriacs aren’t merely hypochondriacs. Most struggle with anxiety or depression—or both, says Swanljung. “When someone is anxious about having an illness, the anxiety level goes up, the stress level goes up,” he says. “That can lead to headaches, to stomach and digestive problems. Anxiety definitely can cause pain, and if you’re a hypochondriac you react to that pain in a unique way.”
No amount of reassurance helps.
“The brain is so powerful that it really can convince itself of illness,” says Caroline Goldmacher-Kern, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. “You know something is wrong because you believe what you’re thinking, and what you’re thinking is what you perceive to be feeling. So you can have five people tell you it’s all in your mind and that’s not good enough.”
In a piece for Psychology Today, a man with hypochondria attempts to understand his disorder.
Painting: Court of Death via Wikimedia Commons
Emily Gould | Longreads | May 2017 | 13 minutes (3,370 words)
During my son’s first two months on earth, I read 25 books about taking care of babies and children. I read them on my phone while breastfeeding and on the subway in stolen moments of solitude while my baby napped in his carrier, his fuzzy head an inch from the pages. Brain-damaged by love and exhaustion, I could not make sense of any other kind of book. For someone who has been partway through at least one novel since learning how to read, this was akin to a psychotic break. But when I opened any novel in those early weeks, the words swam on the page. I would stare till they came into focus, force down a few pages and then give up. Where was the baby in this story? Were the people in the story parents? They couldn’t matter to me otherwise.
The only thing worse was when the people in the story were parents, and there was a baby, but it was in some kind of danger. When my son was about 8 weeks old I picked up a novel which has both a stillbirth and the rape of a 6-year-old in its first 30 pages. Half an hour later my husband found me clutching the baby to my chest, silent tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m sure it’s a great book but I’ll never know. I threw it in the garbage can and heaped trash on top so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back in for it, as though it was some kind of enticing yet poisonous cake.
But my appetite for parenting books was infinite; they were the one thing I wanted besides sleep and icy beverages. My addiction, like most addictions, fed on itself. Because the information in each book was both redundant in some of its particulars and wildly contradictory in others, each dose of information required an antidote in the form of the next book.
All of these types of books appealed to me; if it had “baby” or “sleep” in the title, I was in.
The question of how to get your child to sleep provided the starkest, most dramatic dichotomy. There were two schools of thought: Either you could let your child cry himself to sleep, or you could comfort him, for hours if necessary, until he finally dozed off. Each camp promised a happy, healthy baby and family if you followed their advice, and ruin—of your health and your marriage on the one hand, and of your baby’s nascent trust in the world on the other—if you didn’t. Are you thinking, as I naively did, “Oh, I’ll just split the difference between these two obviously crazy extremes?” According to these books, avoiding a decision is the only thing worse than choosing the wrong path; intermittent reinforcement will confuse and madden your baby, likely making him even more demanding and teaching him that the world, and you, are not to be trusted.
Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | March 2017 | 25 minutes (6,248 words)
David Birnbaum got off the train in Baiersdorf. The Bavarian village 12 miles north of Nuremberg as the crow flies made a pleasant, pastoral impression. Green fields surrounded the railroad station, and men in leather trousers stood in front of traditional timbered houses.
In 2000, Birnbaum, a corporate business development manager, had come all the way from Rechovot, Israel. He had never heard of Baiersdorf until he looked at one of his family trees. His great-great-grandfather, the renowned numismatist Abraham Merzbacher, was born there in 1812, as was another famous relative, the mountaineer and explorer Gottfried Merzbacher. In the first half of the 19th century, the era in which the two men were born, almost one third of Baiersdorf’s 1,400 residents was Jewish.
David Birnbaum’s relatives had left Baiersdorf for various reasons and in all directions. Abraham Merzbacher went to study in Munich. He became a banker and collected one of the largest private Jewish libraries in the world. Gottfried Merzbacher caught wanderlust. He went to explore Central Asia’s Tian Shan mountains, indulging in nature’s “wondrously sweet, flowery alpine valleys… wild gorges… rock chains of unprecedented boldness.” Later, a glacial lake there was named after him. In his expedition “sketches” (available only in German) Merzbacher also wrote that in the magic of this “unworldly solitude (…) the struggles and passions caused by the contrast of people’s real or perceived interests appeared surreal, like phantoms.”
David Birnbaum knocked at the town hall in Baiersdorf’s neat main square. He expected to unearth information about his family by looking at 300- or 400-year-old tax records at the town’s archive, as he had done in other places in Germany. A clerk said that the archive was a complete mess; no way that he’d find anything there. Normally, the clerk disclosed, they don’t even let people go to the Jewish cemetery unescorted. But since Birnbaum had come all the way from Israel and only had a few hours, he could take the big iron key and go to the cemetery which was, unlike other Jewish cemeteries, located right in the center of town. Read more…
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.
* * *
Jessica Gross | Longreads | August 2015 | 17 minutes (4,402 words)
Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained social scientist who is now a Project Scientist at UCSB, started her career researching deception. But it was when she delved into singlehood, her personal passion—she describes herself as “single at heart“—that she first felt enormous synchronicity with her research. “The singles work was something entirely different,” DePaulo told me over the phone. “It is really where I live in the literal and the figurative sense.” She has chronicled this work in scholarly papers, blogs for Psychology Today and PsychCentral, and written books including Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It.
In her latest book, DePaulo continues to examine lifestyles that don’t quite fit cultural norms. For How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, she traveled around the United States, looking at alternative—that is, non-nuclear—ways of living. One example of this is co-housing, in which people live in separate dwellings but meet regularly in a shared common house. Another is Golden Girl Homes, an organization that helps “women of a certain age” live together. There’s also CoAbode, a registry for single mothers who want to live with other single-mom families. And there are even multigenerational homes, which function today in very different ways than we might imagine. Throughout, DePaulo stresses the balance between autonomy and community, and how our relative needs for each are so individual. The upshot is that, finally, no matter what our predilections, there is increasing space for us to create lifestyles that suit us.
* * *
You’ve written a lot about being “single at heart” and knowing that you love being and living alone. Why were you drawn to study alternate living arrangements?
Well, part of the interest was other people’s interest: It was a topic that other people just really liked to talk about. There was a blog post I wrote, “Not Going Nuclear, So Many Ways to Live and Love,” that got a genuine response of people wanting to hear each other’s stories. I also noticed that it was a topic that was appearing not just in casual conversations, but in the media, too. It seemed to be something that was resonating.
As for me, I feel so, so committed, and always have, to living by myself. I wasn’t really exploring for myself—although I wonder if, at some level, I was wondering whether, if I ever really couldn’t continue to live by myself, there was some way out there that really would work for me. Read more…
Why people can feel someone staring at them, experience deja vu, and other paranormal experiences:
One of the most common anomalous experiences is the sense of being stared at. When you see someone gazing directly at you, emotions become activated—it can be exciting or comforting or creepy—and this visceral charge can give the impression that gazes transfer energy. Further, if you feel uncomfortable and check to see whether someone is looking at you, your movement may draw attention—confirming your suspicions.
Another common experience is déjà vu, a phenomenon two in three people report. Most of us shrug it off as a mental hiccup. Indeed, researchers propose it’s a sense of familiarity without a recollection of why something is familiar, or perhaps a timing issue in the brain where thoughts are experienced twice because of a slight wiring delay, lending the second occurrence an odd sensation of repetition. But some people believe it’s a glimpse into a past life.
While anomalous experiences may be associated with stressful circumstances, personal pathologies, or cognitive deficits, the experiences themselves may not always be so bad, and may actually be healthy inventions. They’re just our attempts to make sense of a weird situation. After all, there’s nothing the mind likes better than a good story.
A man with hypochondria attempts to understand his disorder:
Eleven years ago, when he was still a medical resident at Columbia University, Fallon was asked to help a man who was convinced, despite medical results to the contrary, that he was saddled with a brain tumor. ‘He tried Prozac, and it made a dramatic change,’ Fallon says. ‘He went from irritable and hostile to grateful and happy that something was helping him. I thought, ‘Wow, this is fascinating.’ Because at that point so little was known.’
The use of Prozac and similar medications is now under formal study. Columbia’s Fallon and Arthur Barsky, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, are conducting the largest trial ever undertaken of the disorder. They are enrolling 264 hypochondriacs in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial comparing cognitive behavioral therapy, Prozac, and a combination of the two. They suspect that CBT and the drug will be equally effective, but that combination therapy will be even more effective for ‘this major public health disorder.’ ‘I don’t know what to expect,’ says Fallon. ‘But it will be very interesting.’
The story of the Polgar sisters, chess whizzes who were trained by their father from an early age:
When Susan was the age of many of her students, she dominated the New York Open chess competition. At 16 she crushed several adult opponents and landed on the front page of The New York Times. The tournament was abuzz not just with the spectacle of one pretty young powerhouse: Susan’s raven-haired sister Sophia, 11, swept most of the games in her section, too. But the pudgy baby of the family, 9-year-old Judit, drew the most gawkers of all. To onlookers’ delight, Judit took on five players simultaneously and beat them. She played blindfolded.
Photo: Nestor Galina/Flickr
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first offering in J.K. Rowling’s billion dollar literary juggernaut, was published in Britain 20 years ago today and its impact has since been hotly debated. Did the Harry Potter series produce a generation of empathetic individuals? Did it increase literacy, infuse life into young adult book publishing, and help dyslexic children overcome their disability? Or was its impact overblown? Do Potterheads really just need to “read another book”?
Ten years ago, the New York Times argued for “overblown.” While getting middle-grade readers to plow through a 700-page book was encouraging to educators, it wasn’t a magic pill for declining readership. However, the statistics cited by the Times were US-focused, making the argument a little myopic given the series’ international renown. U.K. and Australian statistics made the opposite case, with one Australian outlet quoting a government official crediting Rowling with making reading cool: “Literature is no longer seen as the province of the nerd.”