What is Cyberchondria?
There are varying views on what exactly Cyberchondria is. The most simple view classifies Cyberchondria as the mere act of seeking health information on the internet, whereas the most extreme views classify it as a disorder. Starcevic and Berle (2013) found that most scholarly definitions of cyberchondria were similar in two areas:
1) Cyberchondria is related to excessive searching for health-related information online
2) This searching behavior is not pleasurable
We define Cyberchondria as health anxiety that has either been brought about or augmented by searches on the internet.
All of us have health anxiety, which has a helpful purpose - worrying about our health helps us recognize when illness is present. However, this health anxiety becomes an issue when it causes us to worry excessively about an illness that isn't actually there.
In nature, Cyberchondria isn't different from traditional health anxiety - the only thing changing is the source of the information. However, it's the breathtaking accessibility of online health information that makes Cyberchondria a cause for concern. Before the rise of information on the internet, people would need to go out of their way to find information to find health information, digging through journals, books, and encyclopedias. Nowadays, we can simply look up a symptom or a condition, and within seconds, have access to endless pages of information.
Scholars speak of the term "escalation," in which a search for a simple health symptom leads to future searches of more serious symptoms and illnesses. For example, a search for "chest pains" may lead to a search for "heart attack." As this escalation occurs, the anxiety of the searcher is heightened as they become increasingly concerned that they may have a serious health condition. If you've found yourself to experience this rise in anxiety online, you're not alone: In a large study done by Microsoft researchers, 40% of subjects reported an increase in health anxiety after performing searches for health-related information online. This is particularly concerning - we believe that this rise in accessibility of health information due to the internet may be leading to health anxiety levels higher than ever before.
Measure your own internet-fueled health anxiety by filling out our survey.
It's unrealistic, and frankly not smart, to ask people not to use the internet to access health information - If used wisely, the internet can be an extremely helpful tool for health information-seeking users. However, in order to search wisely, there are certain important aspects of online health information that users must be aware of. Some of these include:
"This isn't just anxiety! I have real symptoms!"
One of the most frightening parts of health anxiety are the physical symptoms it can cause. Anxiety can cause a host of physical symptoms, including numbness, nausea, and shooting pains. Also, even if the anxiety doesn't cause a particular symptom, it makes up hyper aware of symptoms that may already have been present. Neurologist Suzanne O'Sullivan suggests that "almost any symptom we can imagine can become real when we are in distress." After looking at lists of symptoms and related diseases online, our minds are primed to pay special attention to any symptom that may resemble what we see. Frustratingly, this hyperawareness of physical sensations can lead to a further increase in anxiety, which can cause these symptoms to get worse, or can cause new symptoms to appear - all without us actually being sick!
If you are particularly concerned about a symptom, don't hesitate to go get advice from a medical professional. However, when getting anxious, always be aware that the mind has an uncanny ability to produce physical symptoms.
Looking for Further Help?
For some people, self-educating about the internet's potential to produce health anxiety will provide the awareness necessary to avoid falling victim to Cyberchondria in the future. Resources on this website that will help in this self-education process include a reading list that will be updated with information regarding Cyberchondria, and a forum section that can be used to share stories and discuss topics with other users.
However, if you don't find this self-education process to help, and feel that your internet-induced health anxiety is taking over your life activities, know that help is available. Various effective self help guides are available online. Also, there's no shame in going to see a medical professional about your Cyberchondria; a number of psychological treatments have been shown to treat excessive health anxiety, ranging from traditional cognitive therapy to group-based mindfulness. Take a look at this NHS webpage on health anxiety for treatment details.
Sources used for this page:
1. Starcevic, V.; Berle, D. Cyberchondria: Towards a better understanding of excessive health-related Internet use. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics. 2013, 13 (2), 205–213.
2. White, R. W.; Horvitz, E. Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search. ACM Transactions on Information Systems 2009, 27 (4), 1–37.
5. Tyrer, P.; Eilenberg, T.; Fink, P.; Hedman, E.; Tyrer, H. Health Anxiety: The Silent, Disabling Epidemic. BMJ 2016, i2250.