Health Issues

Cyberchondria: Addictive online symptom checking


With the advent of online health advice sites, a diagnosis and its possible treatment are no further away than a few mouse clicks.

New research shows that we’re all turning to online advice sources, though some more than others. Carrying your anxieties about your health onto your Internet search behaviour may be a symptom that you’ve got the increasingly common ailment you won’t find diagnosed there: Cyberchondria.

A few years ago, the diagnostic nomenclature in psychiatry officially removed the term “hypochondriasis,” replacing it with the less pejorative and perhaps more accurate “illness anxiety” or “health anxiety.” Whatever it’s called, the core of this type of anxious concern is a tendency to interpret normal variations in the body’s functions as reflecting symptoms of a serious disease. Cyberchondria, according to New York State Psychiatric Institute’s Emily Doherty-Torstrick and colleagues, refers to “searching the web excessively for health care information”. It’s an exaggeration of what about 90% of Americans do ordinarily, which is “online symptom checking.”

If you’re a regular web health-checker, you may have learned to appreciate what you gleaned from your online pursuits to be poor or unreliable advice. The ailments you’re told you have are statistically highly unlikely or based on users commenting to each other in unmonitored chat rooms.

Doherty-Torstrick and her colleagues tested the hypothesis that the constant checking that cyberchondriacs go through would increase, rather than decrease, their anxiety about their physical ailments. A previous study indeed reported that the more Internet health-searching people engage in, the higher their levels of illness anxiety. The more reassurance you seek, in other words, the less you will find. According to cognitive-behavioural models of illness anxiety, the New York team pointed out, seeking reassurance only serves to maintain your illness anxiety over time.

It’s with the high illness anxiety of the sample in mind that we should approach the question of how much is too much when it comes to online symptom-checking. Yet, even among this perhaps biased sample, there were striking variations in Internet health-related behavior according to whether they scored high or low on the hypochondriasis measure. These comparisons show the 5 telltale signs that you’re a cyberchondriac:

-You check online for symptom information from up to 1 to 3 hours per day.

-You fear having several different diseases.

-On your worst day, you’ve checked 3 to 4 times a day.

-Looking online to get symptom information makes you feel more anxious

-Your health is actually medically stable.

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