ARL Archive · Know Your Words

Hypochondria and that “Gut Feeling”

Screwhead
Don’t try this at home.

Hypochondria, or the belief that you’re ill, sick, or harboring some awful disease despite any evidence to support it, is an interesting word. On first consideration, my gut feeling was that it was in some way related to Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician and, according to the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, and Literature, and Art, “the founder of the school of a scientific art of healing.”

That, however, is not the case. As Webster’s informs us, hypochondria comes from the Late Latin word for “abdomen” (pl. of Greek hypochondrion), meaning “soft part of the body below the cartilage and above the navel [hypo-, under + chondros, cartilage: so called because the condition was supposed to have its seat in this region].”

The meaning of the word, which I hinted at above and Webster’s drives home, is “abnormal anxiety over one’s health, often with imaginary illness and severe melancholy.”

Blakiston’s Pocket Medical Dictionary gets a little more technical and requests that those looking for information about hypochondria begin by learning its proper name: hypochondriasis, which it (awesomely) defines as:

“A chronic condition in which a person is morbidly concerned with his or her physical or mental health, and believes himself [sic] to be suffering from a grave, usually bodily, disease often focused upon one organ, without demonstrable organic findings; this condition is traceable to some longstanding intrapsychic conflict.”

Based on the way hypochondriacs are portrayed on television, they always seemed manic, and a little crazy, so I find this association between hypochondria and depression somewhat of a surprise. Apparently, it shouldn’t be, for as my etymological dictionaries reveal, the relationship has been right there from the beginning. As the Merriam Webster New Book of Word Histories notes in its entry for hypochondria:

“Many ancient theories of pathogenesis, attractive though they are, have been discarded. That dire humor, black bile (or melancholy), was said to be a secretion of the spleen or kidneys and to produce a morbid state of bleak depression and with it an excessive concern with one’s health. This ‘disease’ was named for the region below the breastbone in which it had its origin, the hypochondria.” [Emphasis added.]

And from the Dictionary of Word Origins:

“Originally, hypochondria was an anatomical term, denoting the ‘area of the abdomen beneath the ribs.’ […] This particular part of the body was formerly supposed to be the seat of melancholy, and so in the 17th century the word came to be used for ‘low spirits, depression.’ The modern sense ‘belief of being ill’ originally belonged to the derived hypochondriasis, but was transformed in the 19th century to hypochondria.”

So, it seems that Blakiston, who no doubt benefited from the wisdom of the ages, was right–the hypochondriac is suffering from some “psychic conflict.”

But what happens if you dream about being sick? Does that count as hypochondria? Not exactly, says the Dream Dictionary from A to Z.

“In dreams, indigestion suggests an idea or attitude that does not agree with you or that you are finding hard to stomach in waking life … The dream may also point to actual indigestion. Alternatively, could your stomach have been protesting in your dream because it is literally crying out for nourishment, either literally or because you are feeling starved of love?”

The book goes on to say that if your intestines are the source of discomfort in your dreams, you could be dreaming about something you don’t think you have the “guts” to do. Nausea in dreams may refer to a negative feeling in real life you need to address. Further, if you’re physically sick in a dream, it could mean that you need to “expel” or “get rid” of something in your life, like a job, a relationship, etc.

Now I know why I always  feel sick at work.

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