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4 signs you may have cyberchondria and how to overcome it

Cropped SingleCare logo By | May 11, 2016
Medically reviewed by Anis Rehman, MD

Have a headache? Feel a bit off-balance? Suffering from a run-of-the-mill stomachache? It’s common to take to the internet to self-diagnose what’s causing those symptoms. If you’ve looked online and been terrified by what you found, that anxiety you feel could be cyberchondria.

What is cyberchondria?

Cyberchondria is the feeling of panic that creeps in after reading about health information online. Whether it’s on social media or an article, the emotions you feel are real. They’re called cyberchondria.

Before the convenience and immediacy of the internet, the majority of self-diagnoses used to come from medical students, who believed themselves to be suffering from the same diseases they were studying. The phenomena was so common that it became a recognized condition in its own right: medical students’ disease. The psychosomatic disorder is a form of nosophobia—fear of disease—and requires that sufferers know the symptoms of the diseases they think they’re suffering from before they exhibit the actual symptoms.

Another real medical condition? Hypochondria. It’s the fear of living with a disease even though physicians and diagnostic tests can’t find anything wrong. It can be so intense that the feelings of anxiety or depression it causes can lead to real symptoms. With the easy availability of medical information online, its sister condition, cyberchondria, has appeared.

Now, patients have easy access to 1,200 petabytes of data on the web, and an increasing number of them come to their physicians with preliminary hypotheses about their condition based on personal research. This cyberchondria can lead to poor health outcomes and red herrings during consultations. It’s easy to find symptoms that sound like diseases that are incredibly rare, and the anxiety that creates can take a serious toll on your stress levels and well-being before, and even well after, you consult your doctor.

Rare diseases by the numbers

The definition of a rare disease differs from country to country. For example, a disease is considered rare in America if it affects fewer than 200,000 people at any given time whereas a disease is considered rare in Europe if it occurs in fewer than one out of 2,000 cases. According to Rare Disease Day, rare diseases currently affect 3.5% – 5.9% of people worldwide.

Oftentimes cyberchondriacs, take to the internet to understand the reason behind an unusual, but not deadly symptom. After reading the most serious affliction in the list of possible diagnoses, it’s easy to jump to unnecessarily grave conclusions. One way to fight that instinct? Remind yourself that these diseases are rare, and question the belief that’s stressing you out.

Take Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (or ALS), for example. It rose to fame because of the Ice Bucket Challenge, but the disease affects only two out of every 100,000 people.

Awareness and activism are warranted for those suffering from the debilitating illness. Before you self-diagnose with ALS, or another similar condition, consider what is more likely to happen:

  • You are about five times more likely to bowl a perfect 300 in a game of bowling (1 in  11,500).
  • You’re five times as likely to win an Oscar.
  • You’re about twice as likely to become a professional athlete (1 in 22,000).
  • You’re also four times more likely to hit a hole in one (1 in 12,500).

Putting fear in context with evidence for why it’s not true can help ease your mind.

How do I know if I’m a hypochondriac (or cyberchondriac)?

Here are four red flags of cyberchondria:

  1. Looking up symptoms causes anxiety. Even if you ran the initial Google search to look for reassurance, once you start investigating, you only feel more anxious.
  2. Researching conditions takes up a lot of time. If you lose anywhere from one to three hours a day searching for the reasons you feel poorly, it could be a sign of cyberchondria.
  3. You’re checking online multiple times a day. It’s a sign you’re experiencing high anxiety if you log on more than once a day to learn more about your illness.
  4. Thinking you have several illnesses could signal abnormal feelings about sickness. When your symptoms match up to nearly five different diseases, it’s likely cyberchondria.

Cyberchondria can make you much more nervous than you need to be over common conditions. Misdiagnosing your symptoms can be dangerous and costly. An article in Women’s Health magazine tells of a woman, who after diagnosing herself with chronic fatigue syndrome, self-prescribed supplements, only to find out several hundred dollars later that she was anemic. Anemia is easily treatable and an incredibly common disease. If you feel yourself starting to spiral, remember her story, and consider a trip to the doctor to save yourself extra hassle and cost. This is very true for thyroid diseases as well as they have very non-specific symptoms. 

A cure for cyberchondria

An attack of cyberchondria can lead to unnecessary stress or money spent—not to mention the shame you experience after falling down an internet rabbit hole. If cyberchondria is disrupting your life on a regular basis, there are ways to break the cycle. These steps can help.

Be kind to yourself. There isn’t anything wrong with a little online research when you’re feeling unwell. Beating yourself up won’t alleviate the distress you feel. Talk to a friend, or find a support group for people with similar anxiety.

Use reliable websites. There are many great sources of health information online, like the Mayo Clinic. Your best bet for accurate information is government-run sites, such as MedlinePlus from the National Library of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their content is ad-free and written so it’s easy to understand. Similarly, seek content from reliable social media platforms as well as YouTube channels. 

Follow up with a healthcare provider. It’s the best way to allay your fears. Many doctor’s offices have video chat consultations for instant help if you’re feeling acute panic. Talk to your physician about the information you found online, the symptoms you’re experiencing, and ask for specific tests to rule out unlikely conditions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help change irrational thought patterns, and your response to anxiety so you can learn to deal with it more effectively. Online misinformation is designed to scare you, but with professional help, you don’t have to let it!