by Hannah Latour
It started in my third-year Pathology lecture. We were learning about pulmonary embolism – the condition that occurs when a blood clot in another area of the body (usually the limbs) breaks off from a vein and travels to the lungs, preventing blood from travelling there and becoming oxygenated. “The first symptom of pulmonary embolism is usually death”, the Professor stated. Suddenly, I felt a nagging pain in my calf. My mind raced back to the lecture slides presented previously. I could have sworn I felt a piece of an imaginary blood clot break off from some vein in my leg. How long would it take for it to reach my lungs? Was it really all going to end in the middle of a university lecture? These thoughts plagued me for the remainder of the lecture. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that if I really had a pulmonary embolism, it would have killed me already.
According to the Mayo Clinic, hypochondria is “worrying excessively that you are or may become seriously ill”. The degree of anxiety can range from general worrying to an actual perception of physical symptoms. I guess you could say I was experiencing the latter during my pathology lecture. While I was able to talk myself out of believing I had a pulmonary embolism, hypochondria can be debilitating. Also known as “medical student’s syndrome”, it is not uncommon for medical students to think they have the diseases they are studying. In fact, some medical textbooks and lecturers even caution students about developing hypochondria.
Several formal studies have found that medical students aren’t actually more susceptible to developing hypochondria than anyone else. However, when you spend hours each day learning about all of the things that can go wrong with the human body, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the symptoms you read about and your own life.
While I’m not actually in medical school, it’s my hope to get there one day – or pursue graduate research in a field related to some sort of neurological pathology…. However, the pulmonary embolism incident made me think: “Am I going to spend the rest of my life imagining I’m dying of (Insert disease here)?”
The thing is, beside from the occasional bouts of hypochondria – I love what I'm learning. While being in a biomedical sciences program has exposed me to a lot of ways we can get sick – it has ultimately helped me learn to face my fears by being logical and rational. By learning more about individual diseases themselves (i.e. risk factors, prevalence, biological mechanisms, etc), I have been able to rule out my likelihood of actually having them. I have also noticed that high-stress situations (like exam period!) increase my susceptibility to falling down the hypochondria-rabbit hole. However, throughout my time as an undergrad, I have gotten better at realizing when this is happening and not allowing myself to perseverate on fleeting worries.
If you find yourself worrying about your health, whether you are an undergrad, medical student or Post-doc, know that you are not the only one experiencing this. Of course, if the anxiety is relentless, it’s probably a good idea to bring these concerns to your doctor to rule out any medical conditions, or at least have someone to talk to about a possible diagnosis of “medical-student syndrome”. At the end of the day, my pathology course ended up being one of my favorites. In the future, I’m sure I’ll still face the occasional “Pulmonary Embolism Incident”, but I’ve come to realize that while a whole lot can go wrong with the human body – 99% of the time it usually doesn’t. And I try to ignore that 1%.