Illustration: Clayton Junior

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Making Friends with Hypochondria

The Internet need not be the death of you, says Noelle Howey.

For years, whenever I experienced the mildest twinge of discomfort, I consulted Dr. Google. I'd always been a diligent student, and the glut of information was irresistible. Unfortunately, I was also a worrier, and every search turned up the same result: My days were numbered. If I had belly bloat, I never blamed the five-bean kale soup; I typed "bloated stomach" into Google (a.k.a. and prepared for the end.

The turmoil wreaked havoc on my diet. (When every evening meal could be your Last Supper, you might as well eat the entire pound cake.) It also destroyed my sleep. (Did you know insomnia can be a sign of Parkinson's? You're welcome.) But when I ran to the doctor, she'd inevitably inform me that the weird red dots on my chest were just a heat rash, and the random pain in my hip was just a random pain in my hip.

After many of these near-death experiences, I realized I had one genuine ailment: hypochondria. My GP gently suggested that cherry-picked factoids (gleaned by searching for " headache + tumor") weren't doing me, or my insurance deductible, any favors. She had a point. But since I couldn't bring myself to abandon my "homework," I decided to do some real research. I needed comprehensive medical information, delivered without a scintilla of sensationalism.

So over the course of a year, I read the entire Merck Manual. This may seem a tad obsessive to anyone who didn't spend her childhood reading The World Almanac for fun. And yes, it is 1,824 pages— but it was the ultimate antidote. The Merck Manual of Medical Information felt as trustworthy as sensible Doc Baker from Little House on the Prairie. Its entries explain the anatomy, causes, symptoms and treatment protocols for just about any condition you can think of.

During these months I spent poring (and dozing) over those dense pages. I learned that the body has only a limited number of ways to let you know something's wrong—pain, nausea, a twinge, a spasm—but the signs show up in many complex combinations, depending on the condition and even the individual. An aching back could mean fibromyalgia, or shingles, or a strained muscle. And it was these findings that finally led to my medical breakthrough: It makes little sense to fret about one isolated symptom, so I needed to take a chill pill.

I'm so grateful I conquered my hypochondria before I turned 40 a couple of years ago and weird aches and pains became a near-daily experience. Now I go to the doctor when something hurts for a while or hurts a lot; otherwise, I try to let it go. By the way, do you have any idea how many medical conditions can be caused by stress? Do yourself a favor: Don't look it up.