First, a shout-out: Thank you, NPR and WITF for all the programming you share! Which leads me to this news report on NPR Radio I heard the other day:
Right away my little mind said, “Hmm.” I wonder if it might not be something other than hypochondria, and if that is actually the right word here. Of course, I had to double check the definition, just make sure I wasn’t remembering this incorrectly:
hy·po·chon·dri·a ˌhīpəˈkändrēə/ noun hypochondria 1. abnormal anxiety about one’s health, especially with an unwarranted fear that one has a serious disease.
Hmm. My instincts are telling me this is not quite complete or correct in terms of the cause of some women’s hesitation involving the possibility of heart attack. From my (granted, limited) observation about women and their dealing with illnesses and physical pain, the reaction doesn’t tend to be hypochondria. It tends more that hypochondria is a word they use to dismiss themselves from reacting to pain/discomfort. There’s a subtle difference going on there but I think it’s an important one.
One of my Grandmothers – may she rest in peace – had hypochondria, so I got to see this somewhat up close. She was often reaching out to her doctors, convinced every pain was something deadly, requiring immediate medical assistance. For her, reaching out was a result of a terrible sense of loneliness and the more lonely she felt, the more extreme her perceived illnesses became. She never acknowledged her loneliness or fear of being alone. Instead, she truly believed her body had this or that dire medical condition. Many visits to various doctors and undergoing various tests, observing how she physically moved and that she seemed remarkably suddenly of very good health when she was tended to by anyone, basically supported the condition was hypochondria.
I wonder if there aren’t other factors that contribute to some women hesitating or outright not reacting to what could be heart attacks. I don’t know that it’s as much fear of being labeled hypochondriac as it is not acknowledging the possibility of certain pains being heart attacks in the first place.
The culture for many women in this country could contribute to that lack of acknowledgement. Many women at their first menses are encouraged to essentially hide their menstruation and use medicines to help ignore the pain. There are also now a variety of products to dull away female hormones prior, during and post menses. The overall message is “keep going, no matter how you might be feeling, just keep going.” Additionally there is still this working-world expectation, often burdened upon females more than males to “wear a smile,” again no matter what.
It’s something of an old joke where if a male gets a cold, it’s a major event. If a woman, however, becomes ill, culture tends to train and insist her to just keep going. Contemporary working-world’s expectations have ratcheted up that strain to be more genderless, in that everyone is expected to keep going no matter how they feel and to wear that damned fake smile. I mean, heaven forbid people are real with each other; actually, they are real with each other, just at the risk of loss of employment.
Another aspect of heart attacks which may contribute to this hesitancy in women is what heart attacks might represent: potentially invasive, uncomfortable, painful, expensive tests and treatments; forced-upon changes in lifestyle; possible loss of employment and subsequent financial hardships; overall downgrade of quality of life. True, the counter to that is, “Well, the alternative could be death.” Yes and I agree but quality of life means quite a lot to folks (myself included of course), which could lend to a dismissive perspective in turn leading to the cause of inaction as of not wanting to be labeled as hypochondria.
Let’s be honest here, if you felt a pain in your arm, jaw or even chest, unless it actually is extreme, is your first thought, “Heart attack!” Unless you’ve had prior experience, chances are, no, it’s probably not going to be the first thought. Instead, chances are that pain would probably be nearly instantly dismissed as something else: overdid it on some task or sport (maybe got a bit too sexually enthusiastic the night before), maybe flu coming on, slept in a weird position, or stress from work and/or life. But consider it a heart attack? Honestly, not very likely to be considered that, eh?
Unless it is a storm that will overturn or run the ship aground, instead of pulling in to port, the perspective tends to be to just keep sailing along, even limp if need be, holding hard to the belief that whatever storms there may be, will be overcome.