How The Sexist Stereotypes We Used To Have About Anxiety Affect Your Healthcare Today

Share
Ad failed to load

Living with health anxiety — a kind of generalized anxiety disorder that focuses on the fear of becoming ill — is a real, serious issue, but "hypochondria," as it used to be called, is often stigmatized as a symptom of an overactive imagination, or a kind of attention-seeking behavior. Health anxiety or illness anxiety, which can encompass general anxiety as well as somatic symptom disorder, in which symptoms appear without any underlying medical reason, affects people of all genders and ages, and is thought to be experienced by between 1 and 3 percent of the adult population. But throughout history, anxiety, and particularly health anxiety, was viewed through a sexist, stereotypical, and stigmatizing lens: health anxiety was thought of primarily as a women's issue, and one of the potential consequences of that association affects how women get healthcare even today.

Women often face medical bias when seeking help for their health, from medical professionals underestimating their levels of pain to doctors insisting they're making their symptoms up. As many women know, this is not rooted in any proven truth; while women do go to see their doctors more, they also tend to live longer and are more likely to utilize medical services. But the roots of not believing women when they declare that they're in pain are found in some very ancient and profoundly misogynistic ideas.

In ancient Greek medicine, "hypochondria" wasn't thought of as anxiety is today; in fact, it was associated with the abdomen, not the brain. But what's interesting is that in ancient Greece, only men were thought to be afflicted. Psychotherapist Susan Baur, who wrote a history of hypochondria called Hypochondria: Woeful Imaginings, explains that the idea first pops up in the work of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, to refer to problems with the region under the ribs. Eventually it became associated with mental states too, in the medieval period, but it was still seen as a problem only for men.

Ad failed to load

Women, instead, were diagnosed with hysteria, aka a wandering uterus, that caused anxiety, hallucinations, and sexual desire. Hysteria, or "having the vapors" (as it was also thought to be caused by the vapors moving around inside a woman's body), was in many ways identical to hypochondria in men, at least up until the 19th century in Europe. A doctor in 1708 writes of "Hysterical Women and Hypochondriac Men." Hypochondria and melancholy were thought to come from things like "intense thinking" and "too much study" and were believed to be rooted in men's overuse of their rational brains, while women's hysteria was thought to come from their "delicacy" and general nervous weakness. They were also divided by gendered theories about emotions: an 18th century French doctor, Jean-Baptiste Louyer-Villermay, said that men were more inclined to feel ambition and hate, predisposing them to melancholia and hypochondria, while women felt love, making them hysterics. If you're getting astonishingly sexist vibes, you're not wrong.

Ad failed to load

But then the 19th century happened, and hysteria and hypochondria as categories began to be less gender-specific. The barriers, historians think, broke down because it became more fashionable for both men and women of the upper class to be "sensitive" and "nervous," with people calling it a mark of higher breeding. It was OK to say you were acutely affected by mysterious illnesses, or worried about catching them. Everybody from Dickens to Proust to Edgar Allan Poe to Charlotte Brontë had a reputation for being anxious about their health, or were known to be ill. Hypochondria, historians Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English have written, seemed to become a mark of status for rich women in the 19th century. "Boredom and confinement" as part of their everyday lives, they say, meant that women often became part of a "morbid cult of hypochondria or invalidism." This was obviously hugely ableist, erasing the difficult experiences of non-upperclass people with physical disabilities at that time, and giving chronic illness a fashionable aura. Eventually, however, Baur argues, hypochondria crossed class lines and became seen as an illness that was experienced by all, but for a while, it was seen in the public consciousness as exclusively confined to rich women.

The way health anxiety came to be associated with women, with Sigmund Freud theorizing that women made up mental illnesses in particular to attempt to gain "privileges" like attention and space to think, evolved into one form of what we call medical bias today — the systematic disbelieving of women's pain.

Ad failed to load

Medical bias and the practice of undervaluing or dismissing women's medical complaints is a big deal. It means women can wait long periods for diagnosis for extremely painful conditions like endometriosis, and risk the serious health consequences of underestimated symptoms and untreated issues. And that's not even touching the pretty miserable mental health issues that can be caused by systematically not being believed by doctors. Sexism runs pretty deep in the way we view illness, including anxiety, but the tie between illness anxiety and gender is an entirely illusory one that continues to be damaging to people of all genders today.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Everything Leaving & Coming To Netflix In March, So You Can Plan Your Next Marathon Now

Even though the groundhog saw his shadow — forecasting six more weeks of winter — a nice spring thaw is already on everyone's minds. Fortunately, Netflix has things squared away for March. Whether you're ready to cozy up in front of a fire or get you…
By Sophy Ziss

11 Thoughts That Mean You’re Not As Happy With Your Partner As You Might Think

Even if your current dating situation seems to be going well — you're hanging out, having fun, having sex, etc. — it's still possible that you might not be happy with your partner, and thus not truly happy in your relationship. This can be a gut feel…
By Carolyn Steber

25 Book Recommendations From Your Favorite TV Characters

Although the two may seem like natural enemies, the truth is, television and reading are a match made in bibliophile heaven. Not only are some of the best shows based on or inspired by literature, but whenever you turn on the tube you can be sure to …
By Sadie Trombetta

It Took Heather Graham YEARS To Make A Movie About Women Ditching Toxic Men. The Reason? Men.

They say you should write what you know. But in Hollywood, that age-old advice apparently needs an addendum: Write what you know — as long as men are into it. And for actor and newly minted director/screenwriter Heather Graham — a woman who swam thro…
By Kelsea Stahler

Bustle Editors On CPAC + 'Making A Murderer'

Adulthood is, essentially, just waiting until the weekend hits — which is why I know we're all glad it's finally Friday. Whether your plans are to catch up on all the Netflix content that'll be leaving the platform at the end of February, a weekend g…
By Danielle Colin-Thome

7 Signs Your Energy Is Closed Off To Love, According To A Psychic

Finding love requires more than just the actions of going on dates or setting up an online dating profile. It also requires opening yourself up to love and giving off the vibe that you're open. You may not even realize it if you're energetically bloc…
By Suzannah Weiss

Target Just Launched A Gorgeous New Home Brand — And Most Pieces Are Under $30

Design lovers rejoice! Everyone's favorite store for pretty much everything is about to make all your daring decorating dreams come true. Today, Target's corporate blog issued a press release that provides a peek into Target's new homeware line, Opal…
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

17 Brilliant Ways To Support Parkland Survivors Wherever You Are

Following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, survivors are demanding Congress take action. A large group of students who survived the shooting are opposing politicians' "thoughts and prayers," arguing that inst…
By Sarah Beauchamp

Here's Where Your Next Trip Should Be, Based On Your Zodiac Sign

If you've been craving a vacation, now is a good time to take the plunge. According to data collected by travel site Expedia, late winters and early spring are pretty much the best times of the year to go on vacation. Based on average airfare ticket …
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

How This Quadriplegic Beauty Lover Beat Cancer & Became A Professional Makeup Artist

In 2010, one day before she was supposed to start cosmetology school, Steph Aiello was involved in a car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down with limited ability to move her hands and one of her closest friends dead. She would spend the…
By Sara Tan

7 Common Marriage Rules That Aren't Good For Relationships

When it comes to marriage, everyone loves to give their two cents, and with all the warnings and advice floating around out there, no wonder people find marriage intimidating. Luckily, you don't always have to play by the rules, and there's some bad …
By Carina Wolff

The Infuriating Way Hollywood Movie Sets Are Designed To Make Life Harder For Women

Whitney Cummings is fed up — with the way Hollywood treats women, and in particular, the way the it treats female directors who have children. While the entertainment industry may be working hard to get more women behind the camera, Cummings wants to…
By Casey Cipriani

Why Uggs Are Never Going Away, Whether You Like Them Or Not

Uggs. The word alone can conjure up memories of teenage years, regrettable outfits, and undeniable comfort. But if, like me, you thought that you've already said goodbye to those fleece-lined tan boots, you can think again. It seems fashion has adopt…
By Lauren Sharkey

Netflix's New Romantic Movie Will Have You Crying Like It's 'The Fault In Our Stars'

Cancer movies are a heartbreaking staple of Hollywood and have been for decades. It's almost a law of nature: new year, new cancer movie. This year, it's Netflix's Irreplaceable You, a heartbreaking original about a longtime couple who get thrown for…
By Olivia Truffaut-Wong

I Got A Breast Reduction & It Was About So Much More Than The Size Of My Boobs

As a young teenager, I pretty much reached peak physical maturity overnight. One day I was wearing my first training bra a la Lizzie McGuire, and the next I was sweatily fumbling around a Victoria’s Secret with 32DD boobs, trying to summon up the cou…
By Sierra Taylor Horton

Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu Have Matching Tattoos & The Story Is So Cute

Olympic season gives people the feels. From those shipping Canadian ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to Shaun White's gold medal win on Tuesday, the feels are real. Now, there's another reason to get all up in your emotions. Adam Rippon a…
By Shea Simmons

A New Study Says Being In A Relationship Could Change Your Taste In Wine — Here's How

I’d be willing to bet that for many of you, a nice bottle of wine is awaiting you in your near future — and if you’re planning on sharing that bottle with a partner, there might be more to your choice than meets the eye: According to recent research,…
By Lucia Peters

Carrie Brownstein On Why Even The Obama Era Should Have Enraged You

An icy January morning soon after Hollywood's show of solidarity for the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globes and almost exactly one year into the Trump Administration feels like a momentous time to be sitting across from Carrie Brownstein. The Sleat…
By Samantha Rollins

Here’s What The Upcoming Year Of The Dog Means For Your Chinese Zodiac Sign

On Feb. 16 the world will celebrate the Chinese New Year, welcoming the Year of the Dog in like the good doggo it is — we hope. A new year means new zodiac predictions for the 365 days ahead. So, what does the Year of the Dog mean for your Chinese zo…
By Brittany Bennett

7 Signs You're Ready To Get Into A Relationship, According To Experts

It can be difficult to tell when you're ready to start dating again. Maybe you're coming off of a bad breakup, maybe you've just been focused on other things. And, ironically, one of the signs that you're ready to be in a relationship is that you're …
By Lea Rose Emery

The 15 Best Fiction Books Of February Feature Tons Of Extraordinary Women

When the cold winds of February blow in, there's nothing I want more than to hide under my covers with a good book. Luckily, there's more than a few fantastic new fiction books coming out this month, so the only tough decision you'll have to make is …
By Melissa Ragsdale