'Dr. Google, am I unwell?' What is cyberchondria and how do you tackle it?

When you experience a persistent cold or a petulant pain in your arm, there is no hiding that paying your doctor a visit is not always your first port of call. Sometimes, when struck by a headache or an unexpected rash, the first reaction is to switch on your laptop and fire your pressing questions at Dr. Google. "Why do I have pins and needles in my leg?" "What is causing this mild chest pain?" "Is this mole dangerous?"

Some searchers are simply looking for basic information and take their findings with a pinch of salt. Others, instead, will spend hours skipping from one website to the next, worried about the array of intimidating diagnoses they have found. When this occurs, it is often known as cyberchondria.

Cyberchondria is when using the internet to search for medical information leads to significant health anxiety. Rather than finding relief for their worries, people with cyberchondria will end up feeling more nervous, as they begin to diagnose themselves with potentially serious diseases.

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But what provokes cyberchondria? How can we tackle it? There are some of the ways in which you can manage this condition.

Cyberchondria: A brief overview

With an endless digital encyclopaedia at your fingertips, it is easy to just type your medical queries into your device.

People with cyberchondria will read a list of potential explanations for their symptoms and will tend to believe only the worst-case scenarios. In a similar way to hypochondria, cyberchondria can cause a great deal of anxiety. With the gradual advancement of technology, cyberchondria has become more and more apparent.

The term first appeared in journals at the start of the 21st century, when newspapers reported on an increasing number of patients taking printouts of their possible diagnosis to their clinic. A few years later, it gained even more attention as scientists at Microsoft published a study on the effects of the condition.

Now that most adults have regular access to the internet, it comes as no surprise that around 70-80 percent of people search for health-related information online regularly. While these figures reflect the American population specifically, it is only fair to imagine that UK numbers are possibly quite similar. As of 2016, 68 percent of British adults used the internet to self-diagnose, whether on a daily basis or every few months.     

What causes cyberchondria?

As mentioned, many of us will google our symptoms from time to time, so why do some patients experience feelings of strong anxiety when seeking medical information online? While it is difficult to pinpoint specific causes for cyberchondria, there are certainly a few risk factors:

  • Being prone to worrying -- If you are a natural worrier, chances are that looking up possible diagnoses online can cause further stress. Those living with anxiety or depression are more prone to worrying, which therefore suggests that cyberchondria is more likely to develop in people with a 'natural' tendency to rumination.  
  • Bad experience with a medical professional -- A negative experience with a medical professional can trigger a lack of confidence or trust in doctors, which then encourages the patient to self-diagnose their symptoms instead.
  • Experience of serious illness -- Personal experience of a serious illness can play a significant part in the development of cyberchondria. From the sudden passing of a loved one to knowing someone who has a severe illness, specific experiences can make you more likely to worry about your own health.
  • Low self-esteem -- Cyberchondria can also be linked to low self-esteem. In fact, a 'vulnerability' in itself, low self-esteem can lead people to experience increased health anxiety.  It is generally viewed as a risk factor for internet-related issues, including excessive internet usage and addiction.     

How to manage cyberchondria

Identifying and understanding the causes of cyberchondria can be quite tricky. However, there are steps you can take to keep this condition under control. Here are a few:

  • Schedule regular check-ups -- Booking routine check-ups can be beneficial for your mental health. With private medical cover, you can get fast access to some treatments and tests if there is an issue. That way, you have peace of mind whenever you experience any pressing doubts or worries.
  • Meditate to tackle anxiety --- Practicing meditation or yoga can help you reduce symptoms of anxiety and nervousness. If you are experiencing cyberchondria and you are feeling overwhelmed, set aside some time to breathe and relax. Meditation techniques can quieten your anxiety and help you regain lucidity.
  • Embrace a healthy lifestyle -- An effective way to combat stress and anxiety is to embrace a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Exercise, follow a good diet, and get plenty of sleep. This will actively help you manage your cyberchondria, as having a routine or eating the right foods can make you feel assured that you're being as healthy as possible.
  • Limit your Google searches -- This may sound pretty obvious, but it is worth mentioning. One of the best ways to tackle cyberchondria is to reduce the time spent googling medical information. If you really feel to urge to have a quick look, make sure you are reading credible sources. This way, you are less likely to run into drastic, dramatic, and unfounded diagnoses.

As we live in an increasingly digitalized world, the temptation to check our symptoms online -- rather than booking an appointment with the GP – is high. With a range of possible diagnoses on your screen, including some serious conditions, some people may experience strong feelings of anxiety.

From spotting some of its risk factors to detailing tips on how to manage cyberchondria, we hope this article provides you with a better understanding of this 'modern' condition.

Image credit: scanrail/depositphotos.com

Jonjo Hancock-Fell works at private health cover provider, Westfield Health.

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