Laughing at hypochondriacs

I’ve always been interested in taboo subjects. One of the challenges I most enjoy in marketing is to work out how to talk to people about the thing they least want to talk about. And what do we normally do when we don’t want to discuss things? Stay silent, or laugh about it.

Here’s an example. A man visits his doctor, and tells her that he’s suffering from a long list of illnesses. ‘The trouble with you,’ says the doctor. ‘Is that you’re a hypochondriac.’ ‘Oh God,’ says the man, ‘don’t tell me I’ve got that as well.’

Everyone has a hypochondriac moment once in a while: that disturbing palpitation, the stabbing chest pain that mysteriously disappears after a burp. But imagine being imprisoned for years by the certainty that you had a life-threatening condition. However much reassurance you received—or how many times you saw the doctor—once you returned from the surgery you’d already be convinced that you were still ill.

Laughing at hypochondriacs is a comedy staple. In the classic Edwardian novel, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, one of the characters finds a medical dictionary in the British Library and begins thumbing through it:

“I sat for a while, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.” (Three men in a boat, Chapter 1 by Jerome K. Jerome)

And today there is a whole new generation of hypochondriacs, the so-called ‘cyberchondriacs’ who spend their time trawling the outer reaches of the Internet for information to support their privately-hatched dire diagnoses.

The real problem with hypochondriacs is that they are almost always treated as a joke. The reality is that hypochondria appears to be a manifestation of severe anxiety. Just because something is all in the mind doesn’t mean the symptoms are not experienced as real things for anxiety can cause dizziness, palpitations, tingling arms and legs and so on. But the psychological components of hypochondria can create anxiety and lives only half-lived in the shadow of persistent fear.

Once erectile dysfunction was considered taboo, at best joked about. But times as we know have changed. But not enough it seems for something as common as hypochondria to still be seen as a joke; and the hypochondriac someone to be ridiculed. Only rarely is it acknowledged as the life-warping anxiety it really is.

Below: detail from The hypochondriac by Thomas Rowlandson

About Peter Kenny

I lead a double life. Identity #1. A writer of poems, plays, libretti, prose, journalism and so on. Identity #2: A marketing outlier, working with London creative agencies and my own clients as a copywriter and creative consultant.
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