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Hypochondria, especially a fear of death, is sometimes regarded comically. However, a well-founded fear of death coupled with appropriate steps to obtain effective medical treatment often predicts survival and even future good health.

In American culture, the fear of death is often defused with comedy. American television abounds with examples of hypochondria as the basis for jokes.

In the NBC hit comedy Parks and Recreation, for example, the character Chris was born with an inherited blood disorder that was expected to claim his life in infancy. As adult he is in superb physical condition but he is a germaphobe who frequently expresses his fear of death.

In the science fiction series Star Trek Voyager, the character Ensign Kim was constantly concerned about catching contagion on the new planets Voyager explored. When Kim ran a program the Emergency Medical Hologram (a computer-generated holograph that interacted with the crew in the capacity of a doctor) had written for the holodeck, he commented "Even my holodeck character is a hypochondriac."

Comedian Woody Allen has made a career from his hypochondria. Tens of millions of Americans have enjoyed reruns of the Andy Griffith Show, which featured a character who felt her life depended on her placebo (sugar) pills. And the rock group The Who immortalized the lines:

"Doctor, thanks for seeing me today, I'm glad 
I've got every sickness there is to be had 
I had whooping cough last month 
And today I've got the mumps 
And tomorrow I'll catch chicken pox as well."

Fear of Death Really Isn't Funny

Americans deal with their fears of death by laughing at them. But what when the fear of death is well-founded? Is it best to ignore a fear of death, to tell one's friend and families and even strangers about one's fear of death, or is a sense of doom of any real relevance to health outcomes?

Psychology experts tend to be dismissive of "ex consequentia" reasoning, the kind of thinking that results in the conclusion 'I must be sick because I am anxious." When people know they are sick, however, on the basis of medical diagnosis, and the feel that are facing disastrous consequences, feat of death takes on an entirely different meaning.

Predictive Value of Fear of Death

It turns out that a fear of death or a sense of impending doom is highly predictive of future health. People who have a well-founded fear of the death may have a dramatically greater chance of survival or a dramatically reduced chance of survival, and the difference between the two outcomes is not hard to understand. The importance of a sense of impending doom is especially useful in predicting outcomes in heart disease.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Engelhard IM, Arntz A. The fallacy of ex-consequentia reasoning and the persistence of PTSD.J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2005 Mar. 36(1):35-42.
  • Entwhistle, John. "Doctor, Doctor" written for the WHO
  • Song L, Yan HB, Hu DY, Yang JG, Sun YH. Pre-hospital care-seeking in patients with acute myocardial infarction and subsequent quality of care in Beijing. Chin Med J (Engl). 2010 Mar 20.123(6):664-9
  • Photo courtesy of _elsiecakes on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/_elsiecakes/5391738464
  • Photo courtesy of juanpg on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/juanpg/3323734458

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