Cyberchondria and why Dr Google may be doing more harm than good

Health anxiety has been rocketing, fuelled by the coronavirus pandemic and the search for medical answers online, says Lucy Stock of Gentle Dental Care

Internet browser search bar with magnifier on computer screen with text Search
Cyberchondriacs should be careful about consulting online searches instead of real-life health professionals (igoriss/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Health anxiety has been on a steep upward trajectory over the past 30 years, and it appears Dr Google and the Covid-19 pandemic are partly to blame, according to new research published in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Someone experiencing health anxiety is consumed with worrying thoughts tumbling around their head like a perpetual washing machine cycle, and these negative thoughts bleed into daily life affecting family, social and work relationships.

The sufferer tends to be preoccupied with the notion that they have or will imminently develop a serious illness. The condition is characterised by continually examining the body and believing that harmless physical symptoms are signs of disease. In the mouth, this may constitute scrutinising the area possibly 10, 20 or 30 times a day in the mirror combined with incessant probing with a tongue or finger to check for changes.

The sufferer tends to arrange numerous dental or medical appointments with multiple different clinicians, often leaving the consultations unconvinced with the reassurance that all is well. Support and assurances from family, friends and colleagues are batted back as the person perceives them as, “Being nice and telling me just what you think I want to hear.”

Not surprisingly, with unfettered access to Dr Google a health anxiety sufferer can squander countless hours browsing the internet plunging down the endless illness rabbit holes where the line between real and fake information is as muddled as a bombed paint store. These online jaunts tend to make a beeline for the worst possible diagnosis, reinforcing the imagined illness. This behaviour of continual online searching for potential diseases has its very own name now: cyberchondria.

So, what triggers these compulsions? Well, sometimes they are passed down through the generations. If a parent is outwardly obsessing about their health, then a child may model this by copying the pattern of behaviour. At other times we can be overwhelmed by too many health threats stemming from the media (like in the Covid-19 pandemic) or it may be that someone close has suffered from a disease and this kickstarts the anxious ruminations.

Health anxiety and cyberchondria are debilitating conditions. Recognising that you may be suffering from these conditions is the first step. As difficult as it is, try not to self-diagnose and seek professional help from mental health therapists. Cognitive behavioural therapy, exposure with response prevention and mindfulness training may be suggested to tackle the issues.