Cyberchondria refers to a person’s anxiety about their health that is created or exacerbated by using the internet to search for medical information. A British newspaper coined the term in the early 2000s as a play on the word hypochondria. Like hypochondria, cyberchondria involves excessive anxiety about health. However, cyberchondria is believed to affect more people because access to the internet is so widespread. In the past, hypochondriacs had to visit physicians or libraries to get information about their health. These days, it is possible to access a vast amount of information with a few clicks of a computer mouse.
Many people who experience ill health turn to the internet to self-diagnose. It is estimated that about 70% of adult Americans rely on the internet to get medical information. For some people, this information can lead to a sense of relief or a better understanding of their medical condition. For other people, this information increases their health-related anxiety to severe and unwarranted levels.
What Causes Cyberchondria?
People with depression or anxiety are more likely to experience cyberchondria. It is also prevalent in people who have had a loved one die. First-time mothers may also be prone to cyberchondria, as it is very common for them to do online research about their new babies.
While there is an enormous amount of information available on the internet, it is not always reputable or factual. Blogs and online support groups usually provide anecdotes and opinions rather than evidence-based research. Other websites deliberately prey on people’s fears to sell them unproven treatments. Even well-meaning websites aren’t perfect, since computer algorithms cannot take individual circumstances into account.
These factors can convince people that common or vague symptoms represent serious medical diagnoses. People with cyberchondria are already hyper-aware of their bodies. Misinformation can increase their anxiety, which in turn may effectively make their symptoms seem worse.
How Can Cyberchondria Affect Well-Being?
A fixation or even obsession over being sick can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cyberchondria generally leads to higher degrees of stress. Stress, in turn, can cause elevated blood pressure, headaches, muscle tension, and a weakened immune system.
Cyberchondria can also lead to nonmedical problems. Relationships may be negatively affected as family and friends grow tired of hearing about an individual’s health concerns. Cyberchondria may also damage a person’s career if they miss too much work because of their perceived illness. People with this condition may also suffer financial consequences, both as a result of missing work and often also due to requesting expensive medical tests or purchasing expensive treatments on the internet. As some of these treatments may be fake, people may often spend a great deal of money trying them again and again or trying to find one that works.
Coping with Cyberchondria
There are steps people can take in order to manage cyberchondria. Scheduling routine checkups with a doctor and leading a lifestyle that includes restful sleep, good nutrition, exercise, and other things conducive to good health can help keep health anxiety in check. If concerns about a specific symptom persist for more than a few days, it may be beneficial to get a professional’s opinion on the matter. A doctor can provide more reliable information than an internet search.
Perhaps the most important strategy to combat cyberchondria is to avoid excessively seeking information on the internet. Taking breaks from the internet in general can provide a welcome distraction from health concerns. When looking up online information is necessary, it is generally best to stick with credible sources that are backed by scientific and medical research.
Professional Help for Cyberchondria
If health anxiety is having an impairing affect on a person’s life, it may be beneficial to seek help from a mental health professional. With professional help, people may be better able to identify and explore any factors contributing to cyberchondria and learn to address and manage them.
Specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often effective in the treatment of anxiety. CBT focuses on challenging irrational and distorted beliefs, so it is often helpful for people who wish to change their responses to anxiety in order to deal with it more effectively.
- Cyberchondria: How the internet can afflict your (mental) health. (2014, June 16). U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2014/06/16/cyberchondria-how-the-internet-can-afflict-your-mental-health
- Hypochondriacs can worry themselves sick. (2010, March 23). The San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-ill-illusions-ailments-may-be-imaginary-but-2010mar23-htmlstory.html
- Internet makes hypochondria worse. (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/internet-makes-hypochondria-worse#1
- The social life of health information. (2014, January 15). Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/15/the-social-life-of-health-information/
Last Updated: 11-28-2017
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