Dr. Google: Friend or Foe?

I have to admit: I have a love-hate relationship with Google. I find myself using it to look up a variety of useful information: dishwasher fixes, recipes, mental health facts from reliable websites, the list goes on…And there are other days when I when I let out a big “oh no!”, particularly when I hear about people frantically googling to find answers to their health symptoms.  I encounter this with enough regularity to make me want to write about health anxiety and its relationship to the Internet.

Anxiety is Prevalent

The topic of anxiety in general gets a lot of play and so it should: it’s the number one mental health condition in Canada. Most of us will encounter its symptoms at one point in our lives and it can, at times, have unexpected effects. It has been no stranger to me either.

What is Health Anxiety?

Most of us have come across the term hypochondria or hypochondriasis which simply refers to an intense preoccupation with having a serious illness(es), which typically does not respond to reassurance from health professionals, even though such reassurance may be sought repeatedly.

Hyperchondria is often used in a derogatory fashion, as in “he’s a hypochondriac,” which may increase embarrassment or shame for the sufferer and drive them to look for alternative sources of information or reassurance, such as the Internet, which may allow the person to do so in a way that minimizes judgment from others.

Cyberchondria

Internet-created health anxiety has become seemingly so prevalent that the term cyberchondria has popped up. More specifically, Wikipedia defines it as “the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology based on review of search results and literature online.”

Who Suffers from Cyberchondria?

Cyberchondria may be more likely to be experienced by folks with a preexisting anxiety disorder. Such Internet-related health anxiety can be related to a preexisting, diagnosed health condition or could be related to symptoms that have not yet been verified by a health professional. The ‘doctor’ of choice may be Google, particularly if the person does not have a family doctor (a very familiar story in Vancouver), does not have access to medical care, or, as noted above, is resisting a conversation with a doctor due to shame surrounding their health worries or concerns about what information such a conversation could yield. Previous unpleasant experiences with the medical system may also make a person less likely to make an appointment with a health professional.

Cyberchondriasis Checklist

You may already suspect that you or a loved one suffer from Internet-related health anxiety. This checklist may help you get a better picture of your situation and whether you wish to initiate a conversation with a mental health professional and/or a physician. It is important to note that the presence of health anxiety does not mean that physical symptoms should be ignored. Rather, an appointment with a doctor can be an important first step.

  • You research health symptoms online every day, or almost every day
  • You experience a sense of anxiety when researching your symptoms or your anxiety increases the more information you uncover; symptoms may escalate to panic attacks
  • You feel an urge to google your symptoms at various points in the day, even during inconvenient times
  • The compulsion to check symptoms online is interfering with normal life activities
  • You spend more time than you intended researching health information
  • Loved ones and friends are asking you why you are online so much or tell you you have a problem
  • You google your symptoms in secret so others won’t know what your doing or because you fear criticism from them
  • As author Gina Roberts-Grey writes, you use social media to ask friends about particular symptoms or to ask for reassurance
  • You have diagnosed yourself and go to your doctor with reams of paper which prove your point (in some cases your assessment may be accurate)
  • As Roberts-Grey also points outyou focus on the worst-case scenario and discount other factors such as risk factors, prevalence and incidence
  • Worst-case scenarios take on an additional life in your mind as you think in detail about these scenarios and your supposed fate
  • You discount your physician’s assessment / their assessment is not reassuring and you continue to research health information compulsively (note in some situations, a second opinion may be warranted, however)
  • You experience low mood or increased anxiety after you have put down your device or turned off your computer
  • Online research results, even if positive, are not reassuring and you continue to google to find evidence for fears

What to do about it

Cyberchondriasis, like any anxiety condition is treatable.  At its core, the goal of counselling for cyberchondria is to cease or severely limit online health research. This is not easy to do, even though it is typically very effective. If you have determined that you are ready but perceive that it is hard, or that even the thought of stopping increases your stress, you are right! Severing your relationship with Dr. Google may be emotionally harrowing!

Some tips:

  • Determine if you experience anxiety when you are doing non-health related Internet research. There may be no Internet activity outside of work that feels safe at the start
  • Place clear time limits around use; set a timer if necessary
  • Use the computer or your device in front of others; avoid doing doing so in secret. If the people in your life are not supportive, choose a public space like a library or coffee shop for Internet use, when possible
  • Restrict access to health related websites
  • Develop a plan for managing your anxiety when you are not using the computer, to minimize your chance of relapse. This may include relaxation techniques, distraction strategies and alternative, meaningful activities
  • Ask yourself if you are anxious about other areas of your life; this may be a sign that you need to shore up resources, interests and supports
  • See a physician for a medical assessment or testing to rule out genuine medical cause(s) or your symptoms
  • Meeting with a counsellor or therapist and coming up with a counselling strategy specific to your situation can be critical, particularly if your anxiety or cyberchondria is severe.

The above article should not in any way be taken as a substitute for medical advice and is intended for a general audience, not specific situations. I am a clinical social worker, not a physician. Please speak to a doctor directly if you are experiencing symptom(s) which cause you concern.