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.
7. You think you have a rare disease that came up during a search, even though, by definition, the chances are very slim that you do. (See also, numbers 8 and 9.)
8. You assume that the first result is the most plausible explanation. And that’s just not true. The Microsoft study found that Web searches often return more results for more serious conditions. For example: There’s an equal probability (26 percent) that a search for “headache” will turn up “caffeine withdrawal” or “brain tumor,” even though there are 10 times more pages that associate headaches with caffeine withdrawal and the chances of having a brain tumor are about one in 5,000, or 0.02 percent.
9. When you search, you fear that you have the most catastrophic disease that pops up. (See number 8, again.)
10. You think you have the disease du jour. When the Web is awash with headlines, videos and tweets about the latest outbreak in the world—Anthrax! SARS! Bird flu! Swine flu! Ebola!—do you legitimately worry that you’re infected?
11. Just reading about symptoms online makes you feel sick. It doesn’t mean that your symptoms are “all in your head.” Fearing a symptom can make you tune in so closely to your body that you misinterpret regular sensations as signs of something terrible.
12. You spend so much time searching that it’s taking away from your usual online activities.
13. You spend so much time searching that it’s taking away from your usualoffline activities, e.g. reading, watching TV, interacting with other humans.
14. You would rather know you have something bad than wonder whether youmight. Cyberchondriacs are especially likely to be uncomfortable with uncertainty. When it comes to their health, they assume the worst and use the Internet to confirm their suspicions.
15. You trust the Internet more than your doctor. When a doctor says you’re fine, but Wikipedia has convinced you otherwise, you believe Wikipedia. FYI: A May 2014 study found mistakes in nine out of 10 Wikipedia entries about major conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, lung cancer, depression, arthritis and back pain.