We must all have experienced the features of being a cyberchondriac every once in a while: you wake up with a headache, you feel dizzy and dehydrated, but after googling your symptoms you’re inclined to think you have brain cancer instead of crediting your being unwell to the company cocktail hour the day before. As nowadays the diagnosis seems to be only a click away, the danger of becoming constantly anxious about diseases got a lot closer. Here’s how you can overcome being a cyberchondriac.

Illness anxiety is real

What is the common denominator of Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, and Howard Huges? No, it’s not the opening line of a joke, these three men do have a thing in common: they were hypochondriacs. Darwin was said to use “water cures” for his imagined illnesses, Warhol was terrified of hospitals and obsessed with his physical wellbeing, while the American aviator-billionaire, Huges, was so afraid of germs that he used a tissue for picking up almost everything.

However, the condition could affect healthcare professionals, too. At least for the time they are medical students. When Dr. Mesko studied pathology, he was convinced that he has deadly diseases. It’s a downward spiral. The more you know about something, the more you think about it, and no matter how minor a symptom you experience, you might go into panic mode.

The prevalence of hypochondriasis is also shown in the statistics. Experts say that the phenomenon causes $20 billion in unnecessary medical examinations and procedures in the United States each year. Now, what will happen when hypochondriacs get their hands on the online space and digital health tools? Cyberchondria appears on the stage.

Would Woody Allen’s characters become cyberchondriacs today?

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen’s character says he’s dying when exhibiting some mild symptoms of hearing impairment and insists that the doctors run all kinds of tests complemented with a full medical check-up. Nowadays, he would rather restlessly scroll up and down his smartphone switching from websites like tomorrowyouaredying.com to articles about Ten Signs You’ve Got Melanoma.

According to the New York State Psychiatric Institute’s Emily Doherty-Torstrick and colleagues, cyberchondria refers to “searching the web excessively for healthcare information.” It’s an exaggeration of what about 90% of Americans do ordinarily, which is “online symptom checking.” And while hypochondria was prevalent in previous decades as well, the Internet blew it out of proportions.

It is a “side-effect” of the digital health progress. As people are becoming more and more active when it comes to tracking and managing their wellbeing or disease, exaggeration is rampant. Moreover, as technology progresses, we’ll have much more information on our hands about health and illness, including ECG sensors, food sensors, sleep trackers, digital tattoos, online algorithms or genetic test results. These tools are incredibly useful for prevention. However, people had no training in how to interpret data and how to manage their own information. The result might be jumping to conclusions too early, misinterpreting information or falsely evaluating data.

cyberchondriac
Source: www.medibank.com.au

Thus, everyone who gets into the world of digital health will become a cyberchondriac to a certain extent. So the real question is not how to avoid becoming a cyberchondriac, as we’ll all get into it, but, how we can overcome anxiety as fast as possible and use our newfound knowledge for something good.

The fight against our inner cyberchondriac

Psychology Today collected here the signs that could tell you the difference between being a cyberchondriac or just worried about your health. So, for example, start to apply the below recommendations if you check online for symptom information from up to 1 to 3 hours per day and/or you fear you have several different diseases.

1) Recognize that the internet is a double-edged sword.

It could be incredibly helpful in finding doctors or communities, but it could also give you a very misleading picture if you try to self-diagnose. So be informed, track your health, note the changes, learn about our “Ask Me About Digital” badge campaign to get information on how to use technologies to your advantage. Importantly, don’t leave out your doctor, be a partner, let’s figure it out together.

2) If you google your symptoms, use trusted sources… 

…like MedPage Today, Healthline, Medgadget, WebMD, Christina Farr’s column, https://www.news-medical.net, and not howamidying.com. If you go off-road, you’ll most definitely find websites or forums that will support your narrative. So stay objective.

3) And finally, try to calm yourself…

…before you go down the rabbit hole. For example, it always helps The Medical Futurist team to consider a philosophical principle called Occam’s razor. It says: the most straightforward solution always tends to be the right one. Apply it when you have a headache while your smartphone says you’re dying.

cyberchondriac
Source: longreads.com

As digital health makes an awful amount of data accessible, we will feel the anxiety that comes with it. But only for the first few cases. Eventually, we will learn to make informed decisions by weighing our options. A little fear is a small price for being informed and being able to make educated decisions about our health.

For example, Dr. Mesko was worried to do a genetic test. He was reluctant to know what kind of deadly diseases lurk around the corner. But eventually he did, and he got to be aware of the fact that he inherited a susceptibility to skin cancer and thrombosis. This information presents a solution, rather than a problem. From now on, he only uses sun lotion, and won’t overexpose himself to the sun, exercise on long flights while keeping all these in mind with his primary care physician.

Dear fellow cyberchondriacs, let’s get through this together!