Do you have ‘cyberchondria’? The 4 signs your health anxiety is getting out of control – The Sun
FROM checking why you have a tickle in your throat to searching for why your eye is twitching – we're all guilty of googling our health symptoms.
However, for some people, they become completely consumed by health anxiety after excessively searching for a likely diagnosis.
This has been dubbed "cyberchondria" – when you constantly surf the internet to self-diagnose real or imagined health problems.
And the condition is said to be costing the NHS millions in wasted appointments.
Here, associate professor Jill Newby and psychology lecturer Eoin McElroy from the University of Leicester write for The Conversation about what cyberchondria really is and what to do if you have it…
The term “cyberchondria” describes the anxiety we experience as a result of excessive web searches about symptoms or diseases.
It’s not an official diagnosis, but is an obvious play on the word “hypochondria”, now known as health anxiety. It’s obsessional worrying about health, online.
Some argue cyberchondria is simply a modern form of health anxiety.
But studies show even people who don’t normally worry about their health can see their concerns spiral after conducting an initial web search.
The signs of cyberchondria
Cyberchondria is when searching is:
- Excessive: searching for too long, or too often
- Difficult to control: you have difficulty controlling, stopping or preventing searching
- Distressing: it causes a lot of distress, anxiety or fear
- Impairing: it has an impact on your day-to-day life.
If this sounds like you, there’s help.
We tested whether an online treatment program helped reduce cyberchondria in 41 people with severe health anxiety.
We compared how well it worked compared with a control group of 41 people who learned about general (not health-related) anxiety and stress management online.
The online treatment is based on cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which involves learning more helpful ways of thinking and behaving.
Participants completed six online CBT modules over 12 weeks, and had phone support from a psychologist.
Are you a hypochondriac?
The NHS lists hypochondria as "health anxiety".
According to the health organisation, it is commonly listed as having the following symptoms:
- Constantly worrying about your health
- Frequently checking your body for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling or pain
- Always asking people for reassurance that you're not ill
- Worrying that your doctor or medical tests may have missed something
- Obsessively looking at health information on the internet or in the media
- Avoid anything to do with serious illness, such as medical TV programmes
- Acting as if you were ill (for example, avoiding physical activities)
Anxiety itself can cause symptoms like headaches or a racing heartbeat, and you may mistake these for signs of illness.
The treatment explained how excessive web searching can become a problem, how to search about health effectively, and practical tools to prevent and stop it (see a summary of those tips below).
We found the online treatment was more effective at reducing cyberchondria than the control group.
It helped reduce the frequency of online searches, how upsetting the searching was, and improved participants’ ability to control their searching.
Importantly, these behavioural changes were linked to improvements in health anxiety.
Although we don’t know whether the program simply reduced or completely eliminated cyberchondria, these findings show if you’re feeling anxious about your health, you can use our practical strategies to reduce anxiety-provoking and excessive online searching about health.
So, what can I do?
Here are our top tips from the treatment program:
1. Be aware of your searching
Don’t just search on auto-pilot.
Take note of when, where, how often, and what you are searching about.
Keep track of this for several days so you can spot the warning signs and high-risk times for when you’re more likely to get stuck in excessive searching.
Then you can make a plan to do other things at those times.
2. Understand how web searches work
Web search algorithms are mysterious beasts.
But top search results are not necessarily the most likely explanation for your symptoms.
Top search results are often click-bait – the rare, but fascinating and horrific stories about illness we can’t help clicking on (not the boring stuff)
3. Be smart about how you search
Limit yourself to websites with reliable, high quality, balanced information such as government-run websites and/or those written by medical professionals.
Stay away from blogs, forums, testimonials or social media.
4. Challenge your thoughts by thinking of alternative explanations for your symptoms
For example, even though you think your eye twitch might be motor neuron disease, what about a much more likely explanation, such as staring at the computer screen too much.
5. Use other strategies to cut down, and prevent you from searching
Focus on scheduling these activities at your high-risk times.
These can be absorbing activities that take your focus and can distract you; or you can use relaxation strategies to calm your mind and body.
6. Surf the urge
Rather than searching straight away when you feel the urge to search about your symptoms, put it off for a bit, and see how the urge to search reduces over time.
And if those don’t help, consult a doctor or psychologist.
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