What is "Cyberchondria?"
We’ve all done it: experienced a painful physical symptom and googled it. We do it for a good reason: we want an answer. The problem is that “Dr. Google” is not always a reliable source. Case in point: google “pain in left arm.” Although the results specify that the causes of the pain can vary, in the very next sentence, you’ll read that you’re probably having a heart attack. The internet has a way of returning the most drastic of causes for your symptoms. This isn’t to say that it’s bad to want to understand a symptom, but, rather, that it’s important to consider the source of the information. We can very easily go down the proverbial “rabbit hole” when it comes to looking up physical symptoms. Done obsessively, this can morph into anxiety and panic.
Though not an official diagnosis, “cyberchondria” (a play on the term “hypochondria") occurs when we become fixated on self-diagnosing physical symptoms based upon health information we gather through internet research. As with any form of anxiety, it becomes unhealthy and leads us to feel panicked and worried. It is important to recognize the difference between healthy and appropriate care-seeking behavior and behavior that is anxiety-driven and impulsive.
It can be helpful to remain rational in regards to our health. In the event of an emergency, there are medical professionals and services available to us. We are not alone although anxiety can convince us that we are. We need to pay attention to our “automatic thoughts” when we feel an unpleasant physical symptom. For example, if we experience a headache and our automatic thought is “I have brain cancer,” it is important to challenge and reframe this thought. We might say, “my head hurts at the moment but I don’t have to do anything right now.” Anxiety has a tendency to force us to take action. In an anxious mindset, however, the action is often not congruent to the situation. For instance, calling 9-1-1 for a headache would be out of proportion to the actual event.
Here are some ways to combat Cyberchondria:
-Do research only if it will be helpful to you. Don’t visit Dr. Google if you are already feeling anxious. The anxious mind will latch onto the most negative and dramatic information. There is a difference between googling “headache remedies” and “is my headache a tumor?” Think about your reasons for searching before you dive into an abyss of information. Much like limiting your exposure to a negative news cycle, limiting your exposure to triggering information is part of managing anxiety.
-Work to self-soothe. Sometimes we obsessively seek answers because we cannot stand the feeling of uncertainty or anxiety. Learning coping mechanisms for feelings of worry can be helpful in grounding yourself and, therefore, being able to view a situation rationally rather than through an anxiety-driven lens.
-Advocate for yourself and your health. By staying on top of yearly wellness check-ups and practicing healthy habits, you will be less prone to racing thoughts regarding your physical health. Peace of mind can go a long way toward keeping you out of an anxious mindset. Be sure to connect with doctors and providers with whom you feel trust with and who are right for you.
-Find a therapist who specializes in anxiety and panic. Many therapists are well-versed in helping you learn adaptive coping skills for dealing with feelings of worry. Many, too, have a strong understanding of the connection between body and brain, so they can help you to begin viewing your health in a less worrisome and catastrophic way.
By Phil Lane, LCSW
This post is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical diagnosis or treatment. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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