Mind Your Body: Circumstantial Evidence

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Next time you see a doctor, assess your mood before rattling off all your aches and pains. If you're feeling fearful or sad, chances are you'll misread your body's signals.

When you're in a bad mood, you're apt to interpret symptoms that may or may not indicate real problems, such as a headache or upset stomach, as signs of true physical illness, research shows. A new study suggests that two negative emotions, anxiety and depression, influence symptom-reporting in different ways: Anxious individuals exaggerate physical symptoms they are experiencing at the moment, while people who are suffering from depression overestimate the number of symptoms they experienced in the past, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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"Anxious people are on high alert—they pay a lot of attention to themselves and tend to be very vigilant to danger as it arises," says study author Jerry Suls, a professor of psychology at the University of Iowa. They scan their body for and read any sensations they're experiencing as signs that something is physically wrong. Depressed individuals, on the other hand, recall experiencing more symptoms than they actually did because their brains are stuck in rumination mode, focusing on negative moments from their past.

Inflated health problems—whether from the past or present—have obvious implications: unnecessary testing and inaccurate diagnoses. Suls and his team induced sadness or anxiety in the lab with a set of questionnaires and writing exercises. That participants weren't chronic sufferers suggests that even fleeting moods can lead to inaccurate symptom reporting.

"This research does not suggest that anxious or depressed individuals are hypochondriacs," Suls adds. "They're not making it up. Rather, their affective states influence the way they label somatic changes."

Truth and Consequences

Often, doctors must trust patients' own reports on their health. Follow these tips to keep from unintentionally inflating symptoms.

  • Calm down. If you're experiencing short-term stress, taking a few deep breaths might soothe you enough to nullify the symptom reporting bias. "Attempting to tone down acute anxiety makes sense," Suls says. Just don't try to hide true-blue depression or chronic anxiety.

  • Keep a log. Depressed patients in particular benefit from a journal noting day-to-day symptoms. "If you have a follow-up appointment with a doctor, keep track of your symptoms before seeing him again," Suls says. "It gives the physician concrete data."

  • Tell the whole story. When visiting a doctor, "report your current feelings just as you report physical symptoms," Suls suggests. "That way, the doctor can gauge the condition of the whole patient."

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