The Dangers of Cyberchondria

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We’ve all done it, or at least most of us have. I know I’m certainly guilty of it. I’m talking about turning to the internet for answers to our health concerns.

Just type in our (or our loved ones) symptoms and away we go. That rash we have? Turns out it could be anything from contact dermatitis to cancer. Which is it? Not sure? Well, search some more. There is always another website to check. And as many of us know, these searches can be never-ending.

Excessively scouring the internet for answers to our health concerns is known as cyberchondria. One in three people, among the millions who seek health information in this manner, report feeling more anxious after searching for answers than before. Yet they keep searching even as their worry escalates. Cyberchondria has the potential to disrupt many aspects of a person’s life and studies have even linked it to depression. Those with cyberchondria tend to either avoid going to their doctor, or go too much — both out of fear.

What drives people to engage in a behavior that often makes them feel worse than before?

Thomas Fergus, a psychology professor at Baylor University, links cyberchondria to a dysfunctional web of metacognitive beliefs, which are really just thoughts about thinking. We all have these types of belief systems. For example, it is considered normal to believe that deliberating over a challenging problem will lead to a satisfying solution. In cyberchondria, however, metacognitive beliefs morph into a mental trap — people search online health content incessantly.

Dr. Fergus and Marcantonio Spada, an academic psychologist at London South Bank University, have shown that these metacognitive beliefs in cyberchondria overlap somewhat with those of anxiety disorders. People with health anxiety, for example, hold maladjusted views about the role worry plays in maintaining their emotional and physical well-being. It is these same sorts of dysfunctional belief systems, Fergus says, “that send people with cyberchondria back for long sessions at the computer.”

In 2018, Fergus and Spada published research that, not surprisingly, links cyberchondria with features of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD perform compulsions to ease their anxiety, and those with cyberchondria engage in ritualistic searches for health information to dispel their anxiety. In both cases, people will only stop when they feel certain that all is well. As many of us know, online health content is too vast to allow us to be certain about anything. In fact, certainty is not actually attainable when it comes to most aspects of our lives.

So how can we escape the vicious cycle of cyberchondria? Appropriate therapies for anxiety disorders such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and even antidepressants might be helpful. In addition, metacognitive approaches that encourage people to question the value of going online to relieve their anxiety can be beneficial.

There is another solution to spending countless hours on the internet trying to figure out your latest ailment. Go see your doctor for a proper diagnosis — once. Then you can use the other therapies mentioned to learn how to not only stop searching for answers, but to also learn to accept the feelings of uncertainty that are inevitably connected to our health.

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