Hypochondria: Medical Students Syndrome?

I had to go to the grocery store today, to pick up some things for dinner tonight along with my meds. By the time I got back home, I was shaking and in sensory overload. I spent about an hour curled up in my dark room, part of that sleeping, and when I got up, I felt better.

Talking to Mom later, while dinner was cooking, she mentioned what I have since found out is referred to as “medical students syndrome” – a problem encountered by medical students when they are studying certain diseases, they start to associate any problems they might have with that disease, and worry that they have it – because I didn’t used to have this extent of problems going to the grocery store. (Note that it doesn’t affect just medical students, but they’re the most-affected group.) It’s apparently a type of hypochondria. My father is also worried about me demonstrating this. (Quite honestly, I’m sick and tired of being accused of that. As a child, I had psychosomatic complaints, not hypochondria.) I think I need to write this out, and I’d like other opinions.

(Okay, experiencing crying jag here – a red flag, as my previous psychologist put it, that we’ve walked into a sensitive issue. Which being thought a hypochondriac is.)

The thing is, it could also be what I wrote about in my Coping Mechanisms post. It could be a lowered sensory threshold, whether because of the stress of the last several months, or some lingering issue caused by my incompatibility with Effexor. Or it could be that I am becoming more sensitive as I age.

There were lots of people there, the lights were bright (thank goodness for my sunglasses), and it was noisy. I despise the sound of empty grocery carts, and full ones are only slightly quieter. I went to get the bread and crumpets first, and had a hard time finding the crumpets (because the employee I finally asked was standing in front of them, so I couldn’t see them). Went up and down the (short) bread aisle about three times, checking to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, before I asked.

Then came my meds – easy. Also managed to pick up Robaxacet for my tense muscles – here’s hoping it will help.

Then the cheese, butter and yoghurt. Most of that was easy, but I had a really hard time finding the ricotta cheese. I was chewing on my right index finger (one of my stims that I used when I was a young child, and did by instinct today) by the second time I went past the cottage cheese and dips looking for it. Finally I called Mom to ask where it was, and after a momentary misunderstanding (she thought I was looking for the cottage cheese at first), she told me it was around the deli counter. (Back the other side of the pharmacy.) So went there, and found it.

The rest of the getting of the groceries was fairly easy, no other problems with that.

Standing in line, however…. Not because I was standing in line. That I didn’t mind too much – I wasn’t in any particular hurry, so no need to be impatient. Because there were people everywhere, and talking, and the occasional alarm going off (someone walking through the things without having had a purchase alarm-thing properly deactivated), and I hated that.

The cashier was chatty, but quiet-voiced, and didn’t expect too much in the way of replies, which was okay.

Got home and mentioned to Mom to please remind me to take my earplugs and something to stim with other than my finger with me next time I went to the grocery store, and that I was going down to rest for an hour before making dinner. (Which unfortunately meant that dinner was a bit late, but it gave time for our cheesecake slices to finish defrosting, and both Mom and Dad approved of this variation of my vegetarian lasagne. (No eggplant, no zucchini, just cheese and veggies I like.)) (I make dinner on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday nights.)

When I got back up, went up to the kitchen and made dinner. Put it in the toaster oven for an hour, finished cleaning up, and went into the living room to play on my computer and sit with Mom.

Can’t remember which of us brought up the grocery store, but she pointed out I haven’t been this sensitive before. (Note that I have forgone mentioning – or I have mentioned, but she doesn’t remember – that I hate the sounds of the grocery store for the last several months, at least, and I’ve despised the grocery cart sounds as far back as I can remember. Also, I was very familiar with the grocery store I used to go to back in Toronto, since it was the one I’d been going to since Mom started taking me with her when she went grocery shopping. And that I’ve made a point – whether Mom realises it or not – of trying to avoid going shopping. Sorry, Mom, but I am having trouble.) That’s when she brought up the concern about Medical Students Syndrome, worrying that reading about others’ sensitivities was making me think that my sensitivities are as bad as those of certain other people.

Okay, that is a possibility. It’s not a possibility I’m happy with, especially since it echoes incorrect beliefs from my childhood, but I can’t eliminate it right off the bat. There are other possibilities and factors, though….

  • I’m more consciously aware of my sensitivities due to my growing awareness of SPD and the part it plays in ASD.
  • I have done what I surmised in my Coping Mechanisms post, and torn down the coping mechanisms that weren’t working or were unhealthy, and as a result, the above point applies.
  • The stress of the last several months (the medication mess-up and the results of that, the job and the environments that put me in, and the unclear expectations that I’m still not sure how to ask about) has lowered my sensory threshold, so things that normally would not bother me are. (My planned 5-day “weekend” was not as relaxing and low-sensory input as I was hoping it would be; in fact, I ended up with a tension headache, possibly sensory induced, for the Monday night all through Tuesday.)
  • The stress of the last several weeks (insomnia, necessary but unpleasant talks with Dad and Mom, etc.) has lowered my sensory threshold, etc. etc.
  • Winter makes me more sensitive to some things (one of my friends finds that their eyes are only really sensitive to the light in winter).
  • I’m growing more sensitive (in hearing and vision) as I age.

Possible other factors include:

  • My lack of strong familiarity with the store in question (I’ve been there over the last two years, but not to the extent I was at the grocery store in Toronto).
  • The insomnia this week, which didn’t include Wednesday night, but did include last night – only slept for about two hours.
  • The muscle tensions that have settled between my shoulder blades because of the chair I was first attempting to use with my desk two weeks ago (I’m hoping the Robaxacet will help with that). They’re worse than usual.

Anyway, I’d like some help from my fellow adult ASDers out there. What have you found as you explored and expanded your knowledge of ASD? Have you also been accused of hypochondria, but it wasn’t what was actually going on? (Sorry, Mom, Dad, but “accused” is what it feels like.) Have you experienced something that you’ve done semi-often (which was unpleasant, but that you could deal with) suddenly becoming a sensory nightmare? I really need some help here, because I need to know what’s really going on with me, and anything you guys come up with could help narrow things down.

Thank you,

😐 tagAught

8 thoughts on “Hypochondria: Medical Students Syndrome?

  1. Vathara

    Insomnia all by itself can lower your stress thresholds dangerously. And an unfamiliar store – whoof.

    A few months back, I went with my Mom into a Home Depot I hadn’t been in for years. I didn’t know where _anything_ was.

    About 5 minutes in, I almost had a meltdown on the spot. Everything went tunnel-vision; it was about all I could do to tag after her and respond to yes or no questions. It was bad. I literally hadn’t had things “close in” on me like that for years.

    I’d also say that sensitivity, yes, _can_ get worse as you get older. Just last year I came down with a raft of food allergies I’d never had before. I’ve had to shift a lot of things I ate, and that itself adds to stress because I have to cook things I can eat, and things everyone else in the house can eat.

    Do you have any thoughts on establishing some new and healthier coping mechanisms? It sounds like you could use a little mental “backup”. 🙂

  2. Mados

    Your experience a shopping in the grocery store sounds much like how I experience it.

    I have also speculated whether my noise sensitivity and general sensory sensitivity has worsened during the last decade, because I don’t think I had such a strong focus on specific things in the environment when I was younger and most of the time, I wasn’t avoiding situations (there were some years when I wore ear plugs all the time and avoided a lot of situations I don’t even avoid now, but later on there were years where I didn’t).

    It is very hard to asses whether it has gotten worse, because I wasn’t really OK when I was young, I was sort of in a mental haze most of the time, feeling uncomfortable and not knowing why, couldn’t relate to people et.c. I was also very isolated so I was rarely exposed to expectations about e.g. going to parties or dinners. As my social skills have improved, some of the social expectations have increased (OK, so I still don’t go to parties and dinners. But in principle)

    I think some of the higher sensitivity is caused by higher life quality expectations. My default state of mind is now ‘good’ and clear minded rather than ‘hazy’ and ‘depressed’, so now I notice if specific events or factors make me feel bad; because it matters. I try to avoid negative impacts (like noise, confusion, stress) and get frustrated when I can’t.

    When I was young my thinking was also very fragmented, and I didn’t much connect the dots of what happened through a day. Now I factor in the mental cost of a situation, such as how I will feel afterwards and how that will impact other things I have planned to do or would like to do. I therefore pass the judgement ‘Not Worth Being There’ on many more situations, and that makes me more critical to situations in general because I want leave a situation before it makes me feel so bad, that it will have serious consequences for the rest of the day. So I am more reactive to stress factors (such as noise).

    I also feels that age gives a stronger autonomy and right to say no and care less about other peoples’ norms. And I also think that my physical tolerance has decreased with age.

    I hope it all makes sense:-)

  3. Cynthia

    Is it possible that you’re just being kinder to yourself now? What I mean is, when you come home from the horrible, exhausting trip to the store, you have two choices: give yourself time to recover or just suck it up and make dinner as if nothing was wrong. Maybe in the past you weren’t that conscious of how exhausting sensory overload can be so you sucked it up. Now that you’re more aware of your body’s response to challenging situations, you recognize that taking some time to recover is healthier.

    Perhaps it would help your parents to know that autistic people are sometimes poor at sensing what’s happening in their bodies until their distress reaches dangerous and un-ignorable levels. I actually wrote about this–and about how being more mindful of listening to my body helps me take care of myself better and not ignore important warning signs.

    One of the problems with comparing your sensory sensitivities to “Medical Students Syndrome” is that your sensitivities really do exist and sensory overload is a legitimate thing whereas the medical students are imagining illnesses.

  4. JRG

    Hypochondria is a psychosomatic disorder (check medical references, Wikipedia, etc.). How or why are you more comfortable using one term over the other or more affronted by one than the other?

    1. tagAught


      The psychology wiki defines hypochondria as:
      “Hypochondriasis manifests in various ways. Some people have numerous intrusive thoughts and physical sensations that push them to check with family, friends and physicians. Other people are so afraid of any reminder of illness that they will avoid medical professionals for a seemingly minor problem, sometimes to the point of becoming neglectful of their health when a serious condition may exist and go undiagnosed. Yet, some others live in despair and depression, certain that they have a life-threatening disease and no physician can help them, considering the disease as a punishment for past misdeeds.” -Psychology Wiki: Hypochondria (http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Hypochondria)

      Where in that do psychosomatic symptoms – which are the manifestation of stress through bodily symptoms such as headaches and nausea – fit in? Admittedly, sometimes psychosomatic symptoms can *lead* to hypochondria, but they aren’t the same. (And yes, Medical Students Syndrome is a sub-category of hypochondria.)

      Plus, to those not conversant with the actual medical definition of hypochondria (which includes the “not faking it” part), the term tends to imply faking. That’s the implication I took from when I was a kid (whether Mom meant that or not). So yes, there is a definite difference between the conditions.

      🙂 tagAught

  5. JRG

    First Wikipedia. Don’t just quote just the general symptoms. They are just that, symptoms. If I scroll down the Wikipedia entry for “Hypochondriasis” or “Hypochondria” (http://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypochondriasis) until I get to the heading, “Cause”, I can quote the first sentence:

    * Cause *
    “Hypochondria is currently considered a psychosomatic disorder, as in a mental illness with physical symptoms.”

    That is about as clear and definitive as I can get.

    Also notice, as you browse the web looking for information on hypochondria/hypochondriasis, the references quoted by the various articles on medical sites such as MedlinePlus (“A service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health”, http://http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001236.htm). The references tend to be to scientific articles that use terms such as “somatic” and “somatoform” (i.e. as in “psychosomatic”).

    Whether a term or name of a condition is used by members of the public in ignorance of its correct definition, though annoying, is irrelevant when discussing a person’s health, openly and honestly. When people use a term as a pejorative, I think it is often an attempt to belittle other people and enhance their own stature (“Oh, he’s just an academic and wouldn’t survive five minutes in the real world.”). It is easier to ignore them if one realizes they are doing that (or are simply ignorant).

    Clearly people, including you, who have medical conditions, should be concerned about them. It is also normal, not only to seek treatment and do whatever one can to help oneself, but also to be concerned about how one is perceived by others.

    However, there are concerns, as expressed in the various articles about psychosomatic disorders, that obsessing on symptoms can, in fact, make the condition(s) worse. I happen to share those concerns.

  6. Ine

    Just a thought because I am finding myself in the same spot. Not saying that the difficulties are faked or exaggerated, but I’ve noticed in myself a tendency to copy and internalise behaviour from others, maybe as a way to fit in. This copying is usually neurotypical behaviour, but in one case I actually started copying the behaviour of a girl who was diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. Not good. My theory is that I had very limited resources in judging which behaviour was socially acceptable to copy and which wasn’t. To get back to the issue at hand, it could be a normal coping mechanism for ASD people to start copying behaviour described by other ASD people. So that’s not hypochondria at all, it’s simply trying to fit in in the same way I’ve tried to do all my life. It’s ASD.

  7. leah

    This is old and I’m sure you’ve worked it all out but I wanted to comment anyway.
    I would say that your reaction to being called a hypochondriac tells you all you need to know. You’re worked up about it because it is not your truth. I get the same way when someone believes something about me that is wrong. I can’t let it go and I get frustrated if I can’t get my point across convincingly enough. I believe you. You know what’s true for you. I think NTs have a hard time understanding our obsessive researching. I think it can seem unhealthy but it brings me a bit of happiness so I just go with it.

    I’m going through something similar. I’m 42 and have just discovered that I’m autistic. Before I would just be a bundle of anxiety and didn’t know what was causing it. Now I have this list of issues common among autistics that has unravelled my anxiety for me. As I go through my days now I am hyper aware of these now named issues and am trying to work out which ones cause my stress levels to rise. I have been dealing with ever increasing fatigue for the last few years and my hope is that I can find better coping strategies and get some energy back. I think sensory issues can go up and down over your life time and when I’m not sleeping I can barely function. Also as my estrogen is falling as I get older I’m starting to feel more autistic again like I did when I was a little girl.

    I’m loving your blog. I’m in Canada too 🙂


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