Cyberchondria: How the Internet Can Afflict Your (Mental) Health

Do you spend too much time doing online health research? 

Profile shot of a young designer hard at work on a computer.

Cyberchondria can disrupt everyday life, even causing people to miss work and ignore friends.

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We’ve all done it: You have a symptom, say a persistent cough, and instead of reaching for the Merck Manual – which might have been the case 20 years ago – you turn to your computer or iPhone and rely on the powers of Google to self-diagnose.

If you’re a hypochondriac – and you dig deep enough into the digital ether – you’ll likely find what you're looking for: the worst case scenario. Your cough means lung cancer. The Internet is a world where within minutes, a muscle twitch becomes ALS, a migraine morphs into a brain tumor – and that funny-looking mole? Melanoma.

A little over a decade ago, a British newspaper dubbed this phenomenon cyberchondria – a term that has now entered the medical lexicon. Kelli Harding, a psychiatrist specializing in health anxiety and assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, calls cyberchondria “the new frontier of hypochondria.”

But unlike hypochondria, once considered a rich man’s malaise, cyberchondria has more reach, simply because most people nowadays have access to the Internet – either via computer or smartphone. “It’s really common after a loved one passes away, or if someone is at familial risk for a disease,” Harding says. “It only becomes an issue when it starts to interfere with life … If it’s to the point where the person is not going into work or passing up a social engagement.” 

Also, while it's generally a good idea for people to go for second opinions, seeking third or fourth opinions can be worrisome. “That lack of reassurance is often the red flag that something else is going on,” she adds.

[Read: What to Do When Your Baby is Born With a Health Problem.]

Motherhood on the Internet

First-time mothers might be particularly prone to excessive Internet usage to learn about their new babies. When Jessica Dimas’ first son was 14-months-old, he started rolling his eyes back in his head. “It was just sporadic, and usually when I’d look at him was when he’d do it," she recalls. "It worried me because I thought it looked scary, so I did a Google search to see if there was anything out there regarding young children rolling their eyes back in their heads."

Dimas, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, immediately found websites, forums and YouTube videos on children with a disorder called paroxysmal tonic upgaze, a rare condition that can also signal developmental delay. “My midwife had previously warned me to stay away from searching symptoms on Google, so I usually took everything I read with a grain of salt,” Dimas says.

But the prospect of a more serious condition prompted Dimas to ask her son’s doctor about the eye rolling. The doctor said it was nothing. “He’s 3-and-a-half years old now and still does it when he feels shy and people are looking at him," Dimas says. "He’ll roll his eyes back because he thinks no one can see him if he doesn’t see them."

Dimas says she was more cautious about using the Internet with her second son and advises new mothers to avoid the temptation to look up every single symptom their child has. In her son’s case, the eye rolling “was just a new thing he could do with his body,” she says. “If you have a true gut feeling that something is off with your child, just take them to the doctor.”

The Internet can be a great resource, Dimas says, “But for the sake of your own sanity – take everything you read on the Internet with a tiny grain of salt.”

[Read: How to Cope With Hypochondria.]

Risks of Cyberchondria

Apart from inducing anxiety, cyberchondria poses certain risks. It can be costly if people demand expensive medical tests such as MRIs and CT scans, which also put them at risk for other conditions. Cyberchondriacs may also be more inclined to buy into false treatments online, Harding adds. "It's upsetting how many websites are out there that claim to be offering facts and end up selling things. They want you to be afraid. There's no regulation on that."

There are also certain costs – both financial and health-wise – to misdiagnosing yourself. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that smartphone apps used in assessing the risk profile of moles showed great variability in their ability to accurately diagnose melanoma. The fact that such apps are often free makes low-income people at a particular disadvantage, since they would likely substitute a doctor's visit with an app that reports inaccurate information, the study concluded.

But the biggest risk associated with obsessive Internet searches is arguably to your health because of the stress it causes. "The big irony is that people tend to be less healthy when they are preoccupied with their health as opposed to exercising," Harding says.

[Read: Managing the Power Dynamic Between Doctors and Patients.]

How to Avert and Treat Cyberchondria

If you’re prone to health anxiety, there are certain things you can do to stave off cyberchondria.

  • Make an appointment with your doctor. If you find yourself in an obsessive funk for more than a couple days, make an appointment to go see a doctor. “Physicians are really good at knowing when something is very serious,” Harding says. “There’s a huge grey area of aches and pains that we’ll never really know the cause of,” and that’s where cyberchondriacs get in trouble. Instead, “Recognize that common things are common, that not every headache is a brain tumor.”
  • Have regularly scheduled doctors’ appointments at frequent intervals. “If you have any concerns, you can bring them all at once,” Harding says. And if you decide to do any sort of genetic testing for diseases, work with a doctor, she adds. Otherwise, the uncertainty that information from companies such as 23andMe can provoke will only feed into health anxiety.
  • Mute infomercials on drugs. Pharmaceutical companies are legally required to list all potential drug side effects, but when broadcast on television, the effect can be anxiety-producing, Harding says, adding that becoming aware of what makes you anxious is half the battle to overcoming cyberchondria.
  • Disengage from the virtual world. “The Internet is 24/7, and constant health worry is exhausting for people,” Harding says. “Encourage people to put their phones down and be out living life. Distraction is often a marvelous thing when it comes to averting health concerns.”
  • Stick with credible websites. Avoid blogs and online support groups, Harding says – which are great for newly diagnosed people, but terrifying for others. Instead, consult credible websites such as those ending in .gov and .edu.
  • If you do have cyberchondria, consider cognitive behavioral therapy, or drugs like Prozac that help overcome anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies, Harding says.

[Read: The Most Common Patient Complaints.]