Cyberchondria: what is it and how does it affect your health?

Cyberchondria refers to a person’s anxiety about their health, which leads them to constantly and obsessively search for medical information on the Internet to verify whether the symptoms they have, or think they have, are due to a serious illness. Mariola Pérez Marqués, specialist in Psychology, explains the main symptoms, treatments and guidelines to follow.

Like hypochondria, cyberchondria involves excessive anxiety about health. In the past, hypochondria was considered a problem in which affected people needed to visit doctors or libraries to obtain information about their health, but it seems that cyberchondria can affect more people because access to the Internet is widespread and, nowadays, it is possible to access a large amount of information at the click of a mouse. Many people turn to the Internet for medical information, which brings a sense of relief or a better understanding of their medical condition. However, for people with cyberchondria, the effect of this information is the opposite and increases their health anxiety by giving them more, and sometimes less favorable, diagnoses, leading to a loop of worry and checking.

How can we detect it?

According to psychologist Mariola Pérez Marqués, a key characteristic of cyberchondria is that the person is worried about having a serious illness despite having minimal or no symptoms. These people present the following characteristic features:

  • Compulsive and unwanted search for information, which causes them distress, worry and panic.
  • They spend excessive time searching the Internet for information about minor health-related symptoms.
  • They fear having at least one serious illness and possibly several.
  • Searching on the Internet causes them more fear and anxiety than relief.
  • They experience increased heart rate or sweating or other anxiety-related symptoms when searching.
  • They jump to the worst conclusions about their health status.
  • They may have a minor, harmless health problem that has been diagnosed, but they worry excessively about the problem.
  • They assume that what they find on the Internet is accurate and truthful.
  • They seek reassurance from a qualified person or source.
  • They distrust the answer they get from a medical professional.
  • They feel a compulsive need to recheck their symptoms online, even after conducting exhaustive searches beforehand.

When significant somatic symptoms are present, cyberchondria would not be the correct diagnosis. In the case of significant symptoms without a known medical cause, the diagnosis would likely be Somatoform Disorder.

Treatments for cyberchondria

There are currently several effective treatments for cyberchondria. Below are some types of therapy that have been shown to be helpful in improving symptoms.

  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): in this type of therapy, patients are helped to modify the way they relate to their thoughts, to become aware of their negative thoughts and emotions, which facilitates coping.
  • Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy: allows people to learn to respond appropriately to harmless or ambiguous signals from their own body. To do this, they learn distraction techniques that help them to refocus on thoughts unrelated to their anxiety or health symptoms. Also, strategies to control anxiety and its physical manifestations are developed.
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What can cyberchondria lead to?

Cyberchondria generally leads to higher levels of stress, which in turn can lead to elevated blood pressure, headaches, muscle tension and a weaker immune system. In addition, it can lead to non-medical problems, as family and friends may feel uncomfortable hearing about the person’s health problems on a constant basis. It can also harm the person’s professional life if he or she is absent from work too much because of the illness he or she fears. These individuals may also suffer financial repercussions, either from absences from work or from taking expensive medical tests or purchasing costly treatments over the Internet.

Guidelines for cyberchondria patients.

1. Don’t be embarrassed: Many people with cyberchondria experience embarrassment because they believe they have a serious illness. This embarrassment can exacerbate anxiety or even aggravate stress-related physical symptoms.

It is recommended to discuss the embarrassment with a trusted friend or someone who has a similar tendency to worry and who understands.

2. Question your beliefs: write down the belief that worries you, turn it around and provide evidence as to why it is not true.

3. Practice relaxation techniques: breathe deeply and feel your emotions. For this, you may find guided meditation helpful.

4. Discuss your fears with your doctor: choose a doctor you trust and inform him or her of your concerns and the anxiety you are experiencing.

5. Restrict access to information: try to reduce the time you spend looking for information about your symptoms and postpone it as much as possible.