Looking for ‘peace of mind that never comes’: Health anxiety goes online

Experts have coined a term to describe the behavior of people who obsessively search online for information about their real or imagined symptoms: cyberchondria

Many users turn to the Internet when they have doubts about their health.SOPA Images

Twenty-three-year-old Cristina says that even though she has always been healthy, she has been worried all her life about the possibility of being or becoming ill. Over the years, she has come to search online as soon as the anxiety hits.

She says she knows it doesn’t really help. “I could just go to the doctor, but I still do it.”

By searching obsessively for disease symptoms and other health information, Clara thinks she is trying to “find a peace of mind that never comes.”

This behavior has a name: cyberchondria, the anxiety about one’s own health that results from excessive internet searches.

Eoin McElroy is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Ulster (Northern Ireland). In 2014, he led a research project on cyberchondria, which resulted in the Cyberchondria Severity Scale (CSS). The scale consists of 33 statements that health professionals can use to determine the level of health-related anxiety that the respondent suffers.

In a video call with EL PAÍS, McElroy explained that “cyberchondriasis is not necessarily a psychiatric disorder; in fact, it is something that almost everyone does to some extent today.”

As a form of hypochondria, says the Madrid-based psychologist Pilar Jiménez, the problem with cyberchondria is that “there is never an end.” The person “does not want to get sick, but they are convinced that they are, so they continually look for something that reinforces the idea that they’re sick.”

“With one more online video, or another webpage, you might find something that is similar to what is happening to you or what you’re feeling.”

“The more information [you find], the more likely you are to come across something with which you identify.”

McElroy agrees that cyberchondria is a paradox: “People seek reassurance which ends up increasing their anxiety. This shows how the internet and online communication have changed our daily lives.”

Cristina admits that she doesn’t always go home feeling calm after a visit to the doctor, wondering, what if they’ve missed something?

McElroy says that while the patient should have faith in a doctor’s professional opinion, it can be hard for someone like Cristina to rule out the dire scenarios that have been keeping them up all night, especially if they feel the doctor has not taken their concerns seriously.

When McElroy published his study in 2014, some social networks that are now part of our daily lives such as Instagram had just come online, with others, such as TikTok, not yet in existence. This has created even more opportunity for cyberchondriacs: “I don’t usually look for videos related to [symptoms] on social networks,” says Cristina. However, she explains, if she sees somebody in a video who is talking about a disease and thinks she might have some of the same symptoms, “that is the point [where I] start looking and worrying.”

Pilar Jiménez suggests that social media algorithms do not really help either, because they recommend further content of the same type to those who are looking up disease symptoms and health problems online.

Fernández Ilustre, also a psychologist, says that social media algorithms are “behavior reinforcers,” that make it easier for us to get stuck in “thought bubbles.” The psychologist adds that the pandemic has accelerated the problem of cyberchondria: “For the first time we have felt vulnerable as a society.”

Further, as “access to primary care is becoming more complicated,” people have become more inclined to look for symptoms online before trying to make a doctor’s appointment.

Cristina says that, if the web page that contains the information she finds while researching symptoms online is from a recognized clinic or center, she is even more concerned. If the source is reliable, she thinks, then she must definitely be suffering from the disease the page is talking about.

It is not realistic to ask someone who suffers from hypochondria or cyberchondria to refrain from searching online, says Jiménez. “At the very least, it is important that they look for reliable sources and always, always consult a professional.”

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