Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myths of Hypochondria

Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myths of Hypochondria

by Carla Cantor, Brian A. Fallon

In many minds, the term "hypochondriac" is synonymous with crank, malingerer, and fraud. However, hypochondriacs are not, in fact, pretending to be sick. Their complaints may be exaggerated, but their pain and suffering are real. In her compassionate book, Carla Cantor offers hope to those who suffer from this debilitating disorder. As one who has struggled with… See more details below


In many minds, the term "hypochondriac" is synonymous with crank, malingerer, and fraud. However, hypochondriacs are not, in fact, pretending to be sick. Their complaints may be exaggerated, but their pain and suffering are real. In her compassionate book, Carla Cantor offers hope to those who suffer from this debilitating disorder. As one who has struggled with bodily preoccupations and fear of disease, she shares what she has learned on the road to recovery. Through extensive interviews with physicians and compelling stories of men and women disabled by illness phobias and incomprehensible symptoms, Cantor helps to erase the stigma of hypochondria. Medicine's generally dismissive attitude toward this condition has left patients shuttling from emergency rooms to specialists to medical laboratories, for hypochondria is a significant challenge to the health care system. But a growing number of health professionals are trying to identify hypochondriacal patients and to figure out the underlying causes of their pain. Phantom Illness summarizes the latest theories on the origins and nature of the disorder; describes treatments, including medication, behavior therapy, and psychotherapy; and offers a diagnostic test so that readers can determine whether they are abnormally concerned about their health. Once they understand the tangled history of this malady and its prevalence, readers may be more accepting of the tendency toward hypochondria in themselves or in someone they love.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Challenging the popular image of hypochondriacs as self-involved, whiny complainers, freelance journalist Cantor portrays them as severely troubled individuals whose preoccupation with bodily symptoms and unrelenting fears about disease often amount to a severe, debilitating psychiatric illness. Psychoanalysts view hypochondria as a way of displacing anger against a parent onto a more acceptable target-oneself. To cognitive therapists, hypochondria is a learned response, more like a bad habit than a neurosis. Cantor, herself a hypochondriac, controls her anxiety and phobic tendencies with help from Prozac. Her informative report, written in collaboration with Fallon, a physician and clinical psychiatry professor at Columbia University, includes case histories, guidelines for persons considering treatment and a discussion of stress, depression, panic disorders, ulcers, chronic fatigue syndrome, psychosomatic illness and related problems. First serial to Ladies' Home Journal; author tour. (Mar.)
Library Journal
In contrast to former eras when hypochondriacs were romanticized, today they are mainly disparaged. Cantor, herself a hypochondriac, adds new dimensions to our understanding of this crippling disease. Written with Fallon, a recognized medical authority in neuropsychiatric research, her book effectively presents convincing evidence that hypochondria sufferers are victims of their condition and not manipulative people. In a very engaging style, Cantor interweaves medical information with human-interest vignettes. She hypothesizes that the American obsession with health may trigger increased hypochondriac symptoms. She discusses the difficulty of finding a physician who can diagnose this ailment and then treat it so that the patient can lead a reasonably normal life. A marvelous complement to Susan Baur's Hypochondria (LJ 4/15/88), this book is recommended for everyone who is troubled by unexplained symptoms or knows someone who has-in short, for everyone. [Co-author Fallon also works with Lyme disease patients and wrote the afterword to Polly Murray's The Widening Circle, LJ 2/15/95.-Ed.]-Carol R. Glatt, VA Medical Ctr., Philadelphia
William Beatty
After hypochondria nearly destroyed her, her marriage, and her family, Cantor determined to find out as much as possible about this many-sided condition to help herself and other victims. With the help of psychiatrist Fallon and many others, she has amassed the mythical, theoretical, and factual material this book presents as it pleads not merely for scientific validation of hypochondria but also for much-needed and improved understanding and investigation by physicians, families, patients, and researchers. Cantor explores three dimensions of hypochondria: bodily preoccupation, disease conviction, and disease phobia; and she looks at body dysmorphic disorder, somatization, pain, and conversion. She flavors her discussions with case reports, draws on both scientific and popular literature well, and stresses that a sufferer's outlook can be hopeful only when patient and doctor suit each other. Finally, while she offers understanding, Cantor also advocates positive individual efforts against hypochondria.
Kirkus Reviews
Words of comfort from a recovered hypochondriac whose own fear-filled years of suffering, eventual mental breakdown, and successful therapy demonstrate that this much-maligned ailment can be treated.

Not even recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980, hypochondria still goes largely undiagnosed and untreated. With the assistance of Fallon, a psychiatrist and researcher into hypochondria, journalist Cantor briefly traces its history, shows how it is viewed from the perspective of various psychological schools of thought, and presents vignettes of patients whose morbid fear of illness wreaked havoc with their lives. She tells, for instance, of Megan, whose "body dismorphic disorder" led to fears of going blind, deaf, and bald, among other obsessions; the anxiety led in turn to alcohol dependence and dropping out of school. Although Cantor's primary focus is on the person suffering from hypochondria, she explores the impact it can have on a marriage and how it can shape family dynamics. As elsewhere, her personal revelations lend force to the facts: Her own marriage was nearly ruined by her illness. She writes, "My husband . . . was tired of being supportive. I was wracked by guilt, but so angst ridden that I couldn't focus on anything except my symptoms." Relationships between the physician and the hypochondriacal patient are also examined from the perspective of each. Throughout, end-of-chapter boxed lists, such as "Judging the Medical News" and "How Not to Encourage the Sick Role," provide quick-reference advice. Although Fallon's own approach is based on the theory that hypochondria is linked to obsessive- compulsive disorders and may be caused by biochemical imbalances in the brain, the final chapter describes not just the psychopharmacological approach but two other therapies that have proved effective: the psychodynamic and the cognitive-behavioral.

Of special interest to sufferers, but also valuable to their families and to health professionals.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 8.61(h) x 1.24(d)

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