Feinberg professor talks realities of hypochondria at Evanston Public Library

Feinberg+Prof.+Catherine+Belling+speaks+to+about+20+people+at+the+Evanston+Public+Library+on+Wednesday+night+about+hypochondria.+In+her+talk%2C+Belling+charted+the+evolution+of+the+representation+of+hypochondria+in+pop+culture.+
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Feinberg professor talks realities of hypochondria at Evanston Public Library

Feinberg Prof. Catherine Belling speaks to about 20 people at the Evanston Public Library on Wednesday night about hypochondria. In her talk, Belling charted the evolution of the representation of hypochondria in pop culture.

Feinberg Prof. Catherine Belling speaks to about 20 people at the Evanston Public Library on Wednesday night about hypochondria. In her talk, Belling charted the evolution of the representation of hypochondria in pop culture.

Jeffrey Wang/The Daily Northwestern

Feinberg Prof. Catherine Belling speaks to about 20 people at the Evanston Public Library on Wednesday night about hypochondria. In her talk, Belling charted the evolution of the representation of hypochondria in pop culture.

Jeffrey Wang/The Daily Northwestern

Jeffrey Wang/The Daily Northwestern

Feinberg Prof. Catherine Belling speaks to about 20 people at the Evanston Public Library on Wednesday night about hypochondria. In her talk, Belling charted the evolution of the representation of hypochondria in pop culture.

Nora Shelly, Reporter

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Hypochondria is an extension of anxiety that not only creates personal stress but also tension between patients and their doctors, said a Feinberg professor Thursday evening at Evanston Public Library.

Catherine Belling, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics, presented the history of hypochondria — from Hippocrates to Woody Allen — and its social implications to a group of 20 community members and students. Hypochondria is a medical disorder where people constantly fear they have a disease.

“The problem of hypochondria is that because it’s an interpretive condition, the symptom is a sign of something else — something ominous and scary that is about to happen or that is getting worse and worse,” Belling said. “If you make the symptoms of a hypochondriac go away, they get more worried because you’ve removed the fictitious clue of what is going on.”

The presentation, which was based largely on Belling’s book, “A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria,” was part of a three-part series on public health presented by the library in conjunction with the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities.

Belling said hypochondriacs can present difficult cases for doctors to treat, straining the relationship between doctor and patient.

“There is a tension of who knows best,” she said. “Hypochondriasis threatens medicine’s security about what it knows.”

Belling also discussed the presence of hypochondriacs in popular culture to show how the public attitude has changed over time — from being treated as a humorous, fictitious topic to a real medical issue associated with anxiety disorders. She showed a clip from the 1964 movie “Send Me No Flowers,” in which Rock Hudson plays a hypochondriac whose doctor is brushing off his complaints of chest pain.

“The audience is supposed to laugh at him and know that he isn’t terminally ill,” Belling said.

She contrasted this with a scene from the 1986 Woody Allen movie “Hannah and her Sisters,” in which Allen’s character is convinced he has a brain tumor. In the clip, the audience sees the character imagining a doctor telling him he is dying of a brain tumor, before the doctor actually comes in and tells him he is clear.

“The clip where he imagines the bad news is equally real as when he hears the good news,” she said. “It is completely believable that he could have a tumor.”

Mo Ulicny, an Evanston resident, said she wanted to learn more about hypochondria because she has a relative suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and hypochondria.

“It’s interesting how it’s taken seriously and actually studied,” she said. “We tend to think of it as something that is funny, but knowing somebody that really suffers from this … it’s not funny.”

Jill Schacter, EPL’s marketing communications coordinator, said she attended the talk because she has a close family member who suffers from hypochondria. Schacter said Belling addressed aspects about the disease she has thought about for years.

“The idea of what makes a hypochondriac so upset is you can never be sure if you are in good health,” she said. “Until you can come to terms with your mortality, there will always be doubt.”

Email: norashelly2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @noracshelly

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