Dr. Google, Health Anxiety , and Cyberchondria

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Medical Anxiety Caused by Online Searches

According to Wikipedia, cyberchondria refers to the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology based on review of search results and literature online.  Cyberchondria is a growing concern among many healthcare practitioners as patients can now research any and all symptoms of a rare disease, illness or condition, and manifest a state of medical anxiety.

‘Google Diagnoses’ Can Magnify Anxiety

When my baby was recently diagnosed with an infantile hemangioma (vascular birthmark), I found myself doing exactly what I tell my clients not to do when they have anxiety about a health issue.  I started “googling” uncontrollably.  I spent weeks looking at horrific google images of hemangiomas and reading about brain disorders that rarely are associated with hemangiomas.  After weeks of incessantly and obsessively googling, I was convinced that I knew more than
my pediatrician.  Rationally, I knew that googling was magnifying my anxiety, yet, I could not stop myself.

What I discovered online both hurt me and helped me.  I convinced myself that his birthmark would permanently disfigure his face and that his cerebellum was damaged.  This realization led to total panic, loss of appetite, and sleepless nights.   Fortunately, my “google diagnosis” turned out to be wrong and I had
unnecessarily and prematurely spent weeks worrying endlessly.

My “google diagnosis” and elevated anxiety did eventually lead me to seek expert advice from hemangioma specialists and away from the virtual world of terror.  Seeking such consultation was not an option my pediatrician presented for my son, and, it turned out such consultation was necessary to determine an appropriate course of treatment.

If your guts tells you that your primary care physician may not have all the answers, please trust your instinct and do your own research.  However, if you decide to research your concerns online, do so knowing that what you find can easily be misinterpreted and seek a second opinion from a specialist.

How to Google Medical Concerns Responsibly

If you have a lot of health anxiety, I recommend staying off google entirely if you can control your impulses.  If not, here are some tips on how to google medical concerns responsibly:

  • Information published on the internet is not regulated. Please check the source and the date of the information you find.
  • Remember that blogs are often based on anecdote rather than the scientific method.
  • Ask medical professionals to recommend credible web sites.
  • Use the internet to educate yourself and gather more information but do not to self-diagnose.

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