Are you a cyberchondriac?
Many of us have been there. You don’t feel quite right, so you hit up Google to find out whether you should call your doctor or just relax because it’s no big deal.
Then it happens: The plethora of medical websites, with a multitude of possible diagnoses — some of them very scary — bring on anxiety and stress on top of the symptoms you already are feeling. All of this sends you down a cyber rabbit hole of worst-case scenarios on treatments, costs and prognoses.
If this sounds familiar, you may have cyberchondria. The term was coined in the media in the early 2000s, a play on the word “hypochondria”, which means excessive anxiety about health.
The Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of American Internet users have searched for health information online in the last year, and that 35 percent of U.S. adults have tried to self-diagnose a medical condition using the Internet.
Online self-diagnosis might be correct sometimes and give people more information about their health condition. Often, however, searching online just causes anxiety, and that can negatively affect your health and your relationships with your doctor, family and friends.
If your doctor has to debunk or disprove every online self-diagnosis, it can eat up the already limited time you have with him or her. It also could cause them to miss a real issue. Learning to manage your cyberchondria-induced stress and anxiety can be a helpful skill.
“Sometimes the health information people find on the Internet can be helpful, but sometimes it just makes them worry needlessly. And sometimes the sources of the information isn’t reliable, making matters worse rather than better,” says Dr. Gurbax Saini, an Advocate Medical Group internal medicine physician at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill. “If you’re running to your computer every time you sneeze or cough, it might be time to sit down with your doctor to discuss this anxiety.”
Dr. Saini suggests having a frank discussion with your doctor about your tendency to Google your symptoms and the worry it causes. Your physician also may be able to offer some ways to help alleviate your fears, and avoid jumping to the worst-case scenario.
Be sure to evaluate your online sources, he says. Message boards and online communities are great for people dealing with a known condition or disease but not good for someone who is trying to self-diagnose.
Don’t be afraid to seek help from a mental health professional. A counselor may be able to offer ways to manage and combat irrational and distorted thoughts, including cyberchondria.
About the Author
Heather Collier works in Advocate Aurora Health’s public affairs and marketing department. She is based in Milwaukee.