by Daphne Ford
If you’ve ever felt under the weather and Googled a few basic symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, or aches and pains, you’ve likely come up with some pretty concerning results. Relax! You probably don’t have a cancer, a brain tumor or fibromyalgia.
A psychological phenomenon known as “cyberchondria,” has become a common affliction over the past ten years. Cyberchondria describes health-related anxiety caused by persistent visits to websites such as WebMD, Mayo Clinic and Medicine Net in search of answers to personal health questions.
Before you go running to WebMD to check if you’re suffering from cyberchondria, here are a few tips to help reduce health-related anxiety.
1. Know Your Sources
A major problem contributing to the commonality of cyberchondria today is the assumption that frequently visited health-related websites are as reliable as professional medical physicians. Many people avoid the doctor’s office and therefore fail to understand that your mild symptoms are not likely to be signs of a serious underlying condition, contrary to what our worrisome findings on the internet reveal. The likelihood of you having a life-threatening ailment is very low compared to the chance that these symptoms are harmless.
Despite the increasing number of patients who get carried away on self-diagnostic websites, some physicians encourage you to explore reliable, health-related sources on the internet. They feel that it can help further educate patients on proper health care and make them more aware of the state of their own health.
But, while the abundance of medical information available on the internet today is not necessarily a negative aspect of modern technology, too much information without proper guidance can do far more harm than good.
2. Step Away From the Computer
In a 2013 study conducted by Psychologist Thomas Fergus of Baylor University, 454 of 512 subjects reported having searched for medical information online. Another 2013 study conducted by Makovsky Health and Kelton Global showed that the average American visits the doctor three times a year, but spends nearly 52 hours researching health information online. It’s not coincidence that cyberchondria continues to rise as medical information becomes more accessible. It has become increasingly common for patients to show up at the doctor’s office with a printout from the internet in-hand and a diagnosis already pinned down, or to self-diagnose at home and avoid professional consultation altogether. This bring me to my next point…
3. Go to the Doctor
Neglecting to seek professional, medical advice usually increases anxiety levels which can cause symptoms to worsen, creating an stressful and uncomfortable cycle that can be difficult to break. Along with adding unnecessary stress to our lives (which no one needs more of) it is unsafe to neglect proper medical care in the rare case that mild symptoms are an indication of something more serious. If you are really worried about your health, see a professional physician before you jump to conclusion based on information you find on the internet.
4. Be Aware of Your Stress and Anxiety Levels
Cyberchondria can stem from underlying psychological ailments such as depression and anxiety, which can impair your emotional stability and interfere with your ability to distinguish whether or not information you find online is reliable. This anxiety can be caused by outside sources, such as the unexpected death of a loved one or an epidemic in your community.
Fergus’ study found that subjects who experienced the greatest amount of anxiety regarding their health and searching online also had high scores on an Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IU) which measures how well a subject handles uncertainty about his or her future.
During a press release, Fergus further explained, “If I'm someone who doesn't like uncertainty, I may become more anxious, search further, monitor my body more, go to the doctor more frequently -- and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities.”
If you tend to get anxious about change, control and the uncertainty of the future, you likely have nothing more to worry about than finding healthy ways to identify and cope with sources of stress in your life.
5. Be Patient
Although younger, tech-savvy generations are used to encountering questionable information online, we are more susceptible to cyberchondria than those over the age of 30, who are less comfortable navigating the web. It’s the digital age and it can’t be denied that we’ve gotten pretty used to receiving information directly and instantly. The internet can seem like a good alternative for those of us with busy schedules or poor health care. The accessibility of medical information online today is fast, easy and free; It isn’t hard to see why opting out of a visit to the doctor’s is tempting, when a diagnosis can theoretically be conducted from the palm of one’s hand.
It may sound plausible and convenient, but these simple internet searches often lead to more anxiety than credible answers. Yes, it may be time-consuming, expensive and at time uncomfortable, but seeking professional health rather than browsing WebMD is almost always worth the trouble.
I you catch yourself catching Cyberchondria, step away from the computer and go to the nearest doctor (or find a good distraction) immediately.