Let’s NOT Overanalyze This!

Self-diagnosis is a fool’s game, but that never stopped be before!

Iamsick (13K)

T O BE CONSCIOUS IN THESE DAYS OF PAXIL, PROZAC AND Dr. Phil is to question one’s own sanity on an almost week-ly basis. Self-diagnosis is a tricky business, especially when it comes to the mind. Still, with all the memoirs of addiction and depression and the countless web-sites devoted to mental health, it’s more tempting than ever to lie down on the couch and ask, “Am I normal?”

Clear answers are hard to find. For those of us who just don’t feel right sometimes (and that means almost everyone), the list of possible disorders is endless, and their catchy, sound-a-like acronyms don’t help. Is your prolem, perhaps, ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), SAD (seasonal affective disorder) or GAD (generalized anxiety disorder)? Or could it possibly be all three?

The correct answer, most often, is that it’s impossible to know—in large part because we’re precisely the wrong people to ask. Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, believes that there are fixed barriers to self-knowledge about what goes on deep inside our skulls. Says he: “I think that idle introspection in everyday life can be quite disruptive”

But isn’t the first commandment of modern life to keep tabs on the state of one’s own head, a running box score of syndromes and neuroses? If so, then Wilson’s research says, Good luck! For him, the unconscious mind is designed to be inaccessible so that its owners can’t fiddle with it while it’s operating (not unlike those computer chips in late-model cars whose secrets even Mr. Goodwrench can’t crack). Consequently, our notions about what makes us tick are just that, notions, and very often wrong. We might as well be guessing the number of jelly beans in a bottomless jar. Combined with the culture’s incessant encouragement to uncover treat and neutralize whatever gremlins may lurk behind our brows, this built-in inner blindness can result in a sort of mental hypochondria. We give up on making fine distinctions and simply check ALL OF THE ABOVE. “It can be like medical student’s disease,” says Wilson, “where we think we have every new disorder.” Evidence for this, he says, can be found in the fact that disorders tend to vary over different cultures and over time. In Freud’s day, hysteria was all the rage—a problem experienced mostly by women, who formed the bulk of Freud’s clientele. Nowadays this diagnosis is rare. A doctor who ventures it risks getting slapped.

So where, one wonders, did hysteria go? Perhaps to the same place ADHD will go someday—back into the minds of the doctors who discovered it and the patients who were convinced they had it. Maybe some disorders behave like epidemics: they spread by contact, there’s an immune response and they die out. To test the idea that trendy psychological ailments can be as infectious as the flu in a pre-school, I logged onto several popular mental-health sites and, using various checklists, tried to determine what, if anything, was wrong with me. I started by screening myself for bipolar disorder, the subject of a TV cornmercial that had alarmed me with its suggestion that frantic house painting might indicate an illness. “Some individuals notice that their mood and/or energy levels shift drastically from time to time:’ read the first line of one Web questionnaire. Did the statement apply to me? It did. I checked it. (I might safely have checked it for my wife as well.) When I scored myself, I discovered that there’s a “moderate likelihood” that I am, in fact, bipolar and a candidate for drugs to moderate mood swings. Further delving yielded more disturbing news. From a feature titled “Does This Sound Like You?” on the National Institute of Mental Health’s site (“You get tired easily, yet have trouble sleeping” was one statement that I found particularly relevant), I learned that I may also suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. What don’t I have? I’m probably free of social phobia. Sweating and shaking when others look my way doesn’t sound like me—though this can depend on who those others are.

My grandparents called such exercises navel gazing and would have advised against them. But what did they know? Very little—about psychiatry, at least—and, moreover, they didn’t even want to know. How times have changed! Now we don’t just want to know; we need to know. But this doesn’t mean we always can.

—With reporting by Sara Song


TIME. SPECIAL ISSUE , January 20, 2003

“How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body”

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