Ever felt the urge to open your laptop to check what is causing sudden, mild chest pain? Ever googled what the symptoms of a serious medical condition are after discovering a small bump somewhere on your body? With the continuous rise of the internet and with infinite, free information at our fingertips at all times, it is easy to fall into the temptation to start a quick online query.
Indeed, it has been found that 7% of Google’s daily searches are health-related. Not only that, but when it comes to our online habits, UK residents are now 114% more likely to google health-related terms than they would three years ago. Some searchers will look for basic information and take what they read with a pinch of salt. Others, however, will jump from one website to the next, concerned about the list of daunting diagnoses they have stumbled upon. This is known as cyberchondria, a ‘modern’ condition that can cause a great deal of stress for those suffering from it.
Tobias Alpsten, CEO and founder of myGP, comments: “Although the concept of cyberchondria (self-diagnoses from the internet) is a relatively young term, there is some evidence to support it is a growing concern across the nation. It is crucial that patients remember to seek advice from their GP if they are concerned in any way, whether this is via a face-to-face appointment or convenient video consultation to allay any concerns caused by online searching.”
Here, we explore the ins and outs of cyberchondria, while also providing tips on how to both manage and prevent it.
What is cyberchondria?
In a nutshell, cyberchondria is a disorder where a person excessively searches for health-related information online. But rather than finding comfort and relief from the answers they find on the internet, they self-diagnose with a concerning condition and end up worrying even more. In fact, cyberchondriacs will read a list of potential explanations for their discomfort and only believe the worst-case scenarios. It is in some ways similar to hypochondria, and, as mentioned, it can arouse strong feelings of anxiety.
Journals first started talking about cyberchondria at the beginning of the 21st century, as an increasing number of patients were taking print-outs of intimidating diagnoses to GP clinics. With the advancement of technology, this condition has gradually begun to escalate. As of 2016, 68% of British adults consulted “Dr Google” to diagnose themselves, whether every few months or on a regular basis. By causing unnecessary health fears in cyberchondriac patients, this condition is costing the British healthcare system roughly £56m each year in avoidable appointments and exams. This is because, while cyberchondriacs may have a genuine physical ailment, the disorder leads them to believe that their condition is far more serious than it perhaps is.
Behind the scenes: what causes cyberchondria?
There are many reasons why people may experience serious anxiety when looking up medical information online. In this respect, there is no exact science to determine what spurs cyberchondria, but here are a few risk factors:
- Recent experience of severe illness – If you have a medical history of developing serious conditions, even if you have recovered from them, you may be more inclined to overly worry when new symptoms emerge. Other unhappy experiences, such as the passing of a family member or knowing someone who has been diagnosed with a life-changing illness, can spark more concerns about your own health too.
- Free misinformation and sad stories on social media – When browsing and scrolling through social media, you may happen to read a sad story about someone dealing with a serious condition. Alternatively, you may visit unreliable websites with sensationalistic headlines about worrying symptoms that aim to scare you and lure you into clicking on their page. Often these websites are not fact-checked. Unfortunately, you are likely to retain this information, which may later have an impact on your health concerns. In fact, due to evolutionary survival purposes, our brain tends to notice and remember the negatives more than the positives.
- Low self-esteem – Low self-esteem is also identified as one of the most prominent causes of cyberchondria. This is because low self-esteem is a ‘vulnerability’ in itself and is often viewed as a risk factor for internet-related problems, including excessive online time and addiction.
- Inclined to worrying – Are you a natural worrier? Googling medical information could cause you extra stress. People suffering from anxiety and depression are more likely to worry as well, which suggests that cyberchondria is more likely to appear in people with a tendency to ruminate.
Overcoming needless health concerns
Pinpointing what spurs cyberchondria is no easy task. But if your heart races when googling your symptoms or you spend hours scrolling through several online portals, there are some useful remedies to give you much-needed peace of mind.
- Stay offline – One of the most obvious steps you can take to keep your cyberchondria under control is to limit your Google searches. Staying offline will protect you against misleading information that will do you more harm than good. Otherwise, make sure to visit credible websites and consult valid sources which you know have been fact-checked. This way, you will avoid stumbling upon menacing, daunting, and unfounded diagnoses.
- Book regular GP appointments – This is one of the best ways to minimise your worries. By scheduling regular appointments with your doctor, you will be able to benefit from general check-ups, receive a trusted GP prescription, and direct to a professional whatever concerns you may have. This will spare you from needless preoccupations and nip the problem in the bud whenever you are experiencing discomfort.
- Enjoy a balanced lifestyle – Embracing a healthy, balanced lifestyle is a great solution to manage your cyberchondria. By getting plenty of rest, eating healthy, and exercising on a regular basis, you can actively tackle sentiments of stress and anxiety. Having a balanced routine and eating nutritious food can make you feel assured that you are doing all you can to prevent unwanted illnesses.
- Meditation – If you are overly concerned about your symptoms, take some time to breathe, relax, and meditate. This will help you recollect your thoughts and find some lucidity to better assess the situation. Ultimately, meditation can quieten your anxiety and calm you down if you are feeling overwhelmed.
With a smartphone or laptop always within reach, the temptation to ask them personal health questions is difficult to escape. However, some findings can raise a few eyebrows, and may even trouble people prone to stress and anxiety with unfounded medical suggestions.
From bad medical experiences to low self-esteem, there are several different reasons for which one may develop cyberchondria. But through meditation, a healthy lifestyle, booking regular check-ups, and staying offline, there are many effective ways to tackle the condition and alleviate your worries.