Most of us have done it. It’s just so easy.
At the first sign of a sniffle or an achy muscle we log on and search our symptoms, using the Internet to scare ourselves witless about the worst possibilities our mild cold might produce.
Yet for those with the mental health problem hypochondria, an obsessive belief of having an illness you have not being diagnosed as having, the Internet provides a dangerous way of exacerbating anxiety related to illness and self-diagnosis, leading to the coining of the term “cyberchondria.” Now, a new study suggests that the Internet may even make hypochondria more severe.
The study, conducted by Dr. Thomas Fergus and team at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, and published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, involved 512 healthy adults with an average age of 33. Just over half of respondents were women (55%) and more than half were college educated (59%).
Study participants were given statements relating to their feelings about their health. For instance, “I always want to know what the future has in store for me.” They were also provided with what the study terms a “health anxiety inventory” or statements geared toward perceptions and feelings about health, regardless of actual health. Such statements included, “I spend most of my time worrying about my health.” Respondents were also given a gauge to report anxiety levels.
What Dr. Fergus found wasn’t particularly surprising but is illuminating. The results showed that individuals who were less comfortable with uncertainty (dubbed intolerance of uncertainty or IU) were more prone to anxiety related to their health. Importantly, the study found that as IU increased, so did the frequency of Internet searches for health information and health-related anxiety.
It’s not hard to see a dangerous pattern emerging: intolerance of uncertainty feeds Internet searches and anxiety which in turn increases IU and prompts more of the same behavior.
“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,” Dr. Fergus is quoted as saying. “If I see a site about traumatic brain injuries and have difficulties tolerating uncertainty, I might be more likely to worry that’s the cause of the bump on my head.”
The researchers expound that this behavior isn’t just limited to an awful cycle of anxiety, though, and say it can generate wider problems. Such health concerns may lead to people seeking medical intervention which in turn can slap them with costly medical bills, increasing the likelihood of financial problems. Compound that with the crippling effects of anxiety, which has been shown to severely affect relationships and job performance, and “cyberchondria” really is no joke.
What’s more, the scope of the Internet means that it can be especially dangerous for hypochondriacs.
“When you look at a medical book, you might not see all the possibilities at once, but online you’re presented with so many,” Dr. Fergus comments.
The study is important because it helps to establish a link between intolerance of uncertainty and so called cyberchondria. This in turn provides insight into possible avenues to tackling the problem and breaking the cycle, effectively by increasing people’s tolerance to the unknown.
Cyberchondria is not in fact a new term. Previous studies dating back to 2008 and even before have investigated how self-diagnosis through Internet searches can spin innocuous symptoms — that really aren’t symptoms of illness at all — into the belief of having a potentially life threatening or debilitating illness.
None of the research discussed above should be taken to mean that using the Internet to look up symptoms is necessarily a bad thing: indeed, a patient being able to assess their own well being and health needs is a positive.
However, online symptoms checkers and websites with medical information cannot give the person seeking medical insight the key ingredient that separates the general public from doctors: medical training. Diagnosing an illness is a special skill that requires the weighing of a variety of factors including sex, age, lifestyle, medical history and family history, as well as a number of other factors.
As such, the Internet is no replacement for a doctor’s keen eye.
Fortunately, for those with hypochondria and anxiety conditions, there are a number of treatments available, including cognitive behavioral therapy and, should the case warrant it, medications.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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