I remember holding a workshop on emotional well-being for pregnant women in 2013. One concern that topped the list was the anxiety triggered by the internet when they tried to look for information on common symptoms experienced in pregnancy.
One of the women mentioned that she had looked up the internet to understand “when can you really feel the baby’s movement?” She panicked when she read the information online; she couldn’t feel any movement. She started imagining the worst and experienced a panic attack. A hospital check-up showed both baby and mother were doing well. Her doctor’s instruction: “Stay off the internet and call me if you have a doubt.”
But aren’t we all guilty of self-diagnosis at some point? I have seen people as young as 15 years old and as old as 80 years fall prey to this. Whether it’s headaches, weakness or nosebleed, people search the internet for a diagnosis and end up in a downward spiral of anxiety as they chance upon information which points towards illnesses that are chronic or require intense treatment. Even the simplest concerns can feel overwhelming if you believe the information online and don’t consult a physician.
There is a name for such behaviour: cyberchondria.
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Ophthalmologist Niro Narendran describes cyberchondria as “the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptoms based on the material that the patient has found on the internet”. Before you panic and start looking up the internet again, this is not a diagnosis, just a label that helps to understand how internet searches exacerbate anxieties about health.
Over the last eight-nine years, there has been a significant increase in the number of people who have reached out for therapy because they feel the continuous search for a diagnosis online, obsessively searching for information, leaves them anxious and scared.
Like a 17-year-old client who reached out to me for panic attacks. When we started working together, he mentioned that about 10 days back he had developed a skin rash, looked up information online and ended up on a site which talked about skin cancer. For two days, he spent long hours on the internet; it left him wired up, he couldn’t sleep properly. His fears were laid to rest as soon as he met his dermatologist and he recovered in five days—but his anxiety didn’t subside.
Cyberchondria leads to people catastrophising and then checking the internet for reassurance, in the hope that they will come across another article that proves their self- diagnosis wrong.
There is limited research on the prevalence of cyberchondria and its impact on our life. I have seen that it can impact relationships, overall life satisfaction, harmony at home, work productivity, and even lead to monetary costs.
While we do have technology at our fingertips, how we use it is completely up to us. Next time, when you find yourself self-diagnosing, either for a physical condition or a mental health concern, take a moment to assess your reason for checking online. Is it haste, anxiety, an attempt at understanding before you meet your physician or fear of the worst-case scenario? A medical practitioner would look at a host of symptoms, based on intensity, frequency and severity, before reaching a diagnosis. But while searching we often end up focusing on isolated symptoms. Check yourself every time you feel the itch to look up symptoms and learn to set a time limit if you do so. Most importantly, fix an appointment with a health practitioner you trust and learn to filter the information you read online so you don’t fall into the pit of self-diagnosis.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.