‘Researching health topics is one of the most popular online activities, second only to e-mail and researching products,” says Gordon Asmundson, a professor of psychology at the University of Regina and author of the book It’s Not All in Your Head: How Worrying about Your Health Could Be Making You Sick’and What You Can Do About It. But when does surfing the web for health information become a problem?
Cyberchondria is a pop-culture term used to describe the tendency to persistently check Internet sources for health-related information about conditions you fear you might have. While Asmundson says he’s yet to see a study published about cyberchondria, it can be classified as a type of health anxiety or hypochondria (also called hypochondriasis).
Here’s how to tell if it’s time to get help for your health-related Googling.
1. You check health information websites to get relief from anxiety
A person suffering from cyberchondria will search the Internet for explanations of physical symptoms she is experiencing. "The reason the person is checking is because it provides some relief from the health-related anxiety. The problem is that the relief is temporary and when the person goes away from the computer, the anxiety returns," says Asmundson.
Those who are suffering from cyberchondria will search online health information over and over again to help them feel less anxious. ‘Just like an alcoholic needs the next drink, a cyberchondriac needs the next information search,” says Asmundson.
2. The time you spend checking health symptoms online is interfering with your life
Most of us check health websites from time to time. A 2008 survey conducted by a research team in B.C. found that 86 percent of participants said they regularly used the Internet as a source for health information.
However, a person suffering from cyberchondria doesn’t simply log on every once in a while to read up on a condition’searching for health information has become her primary activity.
If you find that your online health research is taking the place of your hobbies, getting in the way of your job or disrupting your home life, you could be suffering from cyberchondria.
"When somebody’s not working or spending time with their family because they’re spending all their time checking online, then it’s time to seek help," says Asmundson.
3. You seek reassurance from people in chat rooms or social networks
There are two behaviours that keep a person trapped in the health anxiety cycle. One is checking and the other is seeking reassurance that the symptoms you’re experiencing are not linked to a serious disease.
"Reassurance is like throwing fuel on the fire of health anxiety," says Admundson. Constantly asking unqualified online friends to tell you that you’re okay is a sign that you might be seeking that temporary relief from health anxiety.
4. You see your doctor more than your friends
Frequently visiting your doctor or many different physicians is another form of checking medical information to relieve anxiety.
‘Quite often a person who has health anxiety has been to the doctor repeatedly and sometimes they’re told nothing’s wrong,’ says Asmundson.
Sometimes a family doctor might get frustrated with a person suffering from cyberchondria and say the symptoms are all in her head, he adds. If this is the case with your doctor, consider seeking out help from a mental-health professional.
‘From a mental health perspective, we want to say, what you’re experiencing is legitimate but it might not be disease related. Let’s see if we can find another explanation,’ Asumundson says.
Where to find help
If you’re ready to speak to a mental-health professional about your health anxiety, click through to find information on how to find the right therapist for your needs.
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