15 Signs You're a Cyberchondriac
By Amanda Schupak
Isn’t it great to have a world of information right at your fingertips? Can’t remember the name of that actor? Boom, IMDb. Trying to find a used sofa? Craigslist it is. Want to know what’s causing that rash on your stomach? Hold it right there. While some people might be able to handle a little Web-enabled self-diagnosing from time to time—the vast majority of us have done it at least once—there are some people who should never use the Internet to play Dr. House.
These people are called cyberchondriacs. They are anxious about their health and go online to assuage their fears, only to come out more worried than before. Thomas Fergus, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Baylor University, is one of a handful of researchers trying to learn more about this decidedly modern (dare I say, First World) affliction: “Many people can go online when they’re not feeling well and it makes them feel less distressed, relieved. For other individuals, going online to search for medical information makes them feel more anxious.” But they do it anyway, and they do it often, possibly convincing themselves they have Swine Flu, Ebola or a brain tumor.
Needless to say, it ain’t healthy.
A 2009 study by researchers at Microsoft analyzed masses of health-related Internet searches and found that nearly 40 percent of people experience greater anxiety after researching their symptoms than they did at the outset. “The Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when Web search is employed as a diagnostic procedure,” the authors write. “We use the term cyberchondria to refer to the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the Web.”
At the risk of adding to your list of Things I’m Sure I Have, here are 15 signs that you’re a cyberchondriac. (And if you are, we suggest this be the last time you diagnose yourself with anything online.)
1. You go to WebMD or Google at the first sign of any symptom. Health-anxious people are typically more vigilant about problems in their bodies than people who don’t think about their health a lot, and that can be a good thing. But it increases the chances that you’ll interpret any ambiguous feeling or novel sensation as a harbinger of disease, when it’s probably perfectly normal and will go away in a day or two if you just wait it out.
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2. One source is never enough; you always check at least two or three sites (or more).
3. Searching for information makes you feel worse, not better. Your increasing anxiety may add its own symptoms to your list, such as racing heartbeat, difficulty breathing and tightness in the throat.
4. The worse searching makes you feel, the more you search. One thing that distinguishes an average health-anxious person from a cyberchondriac is that when the former finds that her Google results are raising her blood pressure, she stops.
5. The more you search, the more convinced you are that you have something awful.
6. You search for vague symptoms and believe you have one of the many diseases that pop up. Symptoms such as dizziness, heart palpitations, fatigue, headaches, stomach pain, nausea, chest pain, lumps, insomnia, rash and muscle twitches are associated with myriad illnesses. Most of the time, however, they’re perfectly innocuous and will subside on their own.