Do you find yourself spiralling when searching symptoms on Google? You might have cyberchondria. Here’s how to use Google to seek a diagnosis, the safe way.
Have you ever been sitting in your bed at home, with a cup of tea and Gossip Girl reruns playing on your laptop, only to realise you have a bump in your wrist that seems bigger than you last remembered it?
You touch the bump, push it hard enough to bruise, which then makes it bigger. You keep pressing it and wonder when it got so prominent, and whether it had been a quick change or a slow one.
It doesn’t hurt to touch, but after you’ve been prodding for half an hour it starts to. And then you start to panic.
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You open up a new window on your laptop and search “sore bump wrist” on Google. You know it probably won’t make you feel better, but you’re worried so you want reassurance.
As expected, the results for ganglion cyst, carpal boss and Rheumatoid arthritis make you feel significantly worse. Then you see one that mentions bone cancer, and you spiral.
You text your mum for reassurance, send a photo to your friend, call your partner to talk through your reasoning. Your wrist feels sore now – because you’ve bruised the crap out of it – and what started as a totally normal bump has quickly become racking anxiety.
For those who don’t experience a form of health anxiety, this may seem foreign. But for people with ‚cyberchondria‘, it’s a common experience, and it can be debilitating.
What is cyberchondria?
Research shows 90 per cent of patients admitted to hospital Google their symptoms before they talk to their doctor.
And while some people may feel a twinge of nervousness at the results, some people can find it very overwhelming and extremely distressing.
Cyberchondria refers to “repeated Internet searches regarding medical information result in excessive concerns about physical health”, according to research about the condition published in Psychiatry Research.
One of the defining qualities of the illness is its compulsiveness, which means that while you may logically know searching for symptoms won’t help, you can’t stop yourself.
Cyberchondria is recognised as a very real phenomenon, and is “positively associated with symptoms of health anxiety” – meaning, as health anxiety emerges, so too does the urge to use ‘Google doctor’.
Even those who don’t have cyberchondria or hypochondria will relate to the worry that can creep in at the thought of being sick, and it’s our human nature to want to rid ourselves of that fear.
But doctors say this obsessive Googling is not just bad for your mental health, it’s also deeply unhelpful for health professionals.
“When I hear a patient say, ‘I Googled it,’ I think: OK. How much misinformation am I going to have to dispel?” Dr Beth Oller, tells HuffPost. She also says her patients usually know they’ve done themselves a disservice.
“None of us can help it!” Oller said. “I don’t blame people for trying to look up their symptoms.”
Using the internet as a health resource isn’t all bad either. For many people, women in particular, the rise of health-skewed content on TikTok has enabled them to advocate for their own diagnoses, particularly with conditions like ADHD which present differently in women as for men.
So how can you use the internet as a resource to help rather than hinder? Here are our top five tips to keep you safe while searching.
#1. Use trusted resources
As your school librarian would have taught you, sites with .org or .gov are generally a lot more trustworthy than your average .com.
Resources from recognised sources like hospitals, governments, universities and other well-known research centres will have trustworthy, factual and up-to-date information on which you can base any judgements about your health.
Some of our favourites include:
#2. Refresh your memory on Research 101
If you went to uni you’ll be painfully familiar with the requirements for citing research in your work – so do yourself a favour and brush up on those skills.
Things to keep in mind:
- Refer to recent pieces of work
- Only trust data that comes from peer-reviewed publications that have been fact-checked
- Cross-check your research with other publications or resources
- Consider how many people were studied in the report, whether the study was valid and reliable, and whether any other research has built upon their findings
HuffPost also suggests checking if the study has been picked up by the media – and whether experts have weighed in on the matter.
“It can be tough for medical providers, absolutely, to look at a study and tell if it’s reliable or not,” Oller told the publication. “I absolutely understand why, for the layperson, it’s even more difficult.”
Knowing this, make sure you do your due diligence and check that the information you’re getting is trustworthy.
#3. Keep an eye on how you’re feeling
For those with cyberchondria, searching for symptoms can be extremely anxiety-inducing, and can bring on a wave of overwhelm.
While you’re researching, keep tabs on whether that anxiety is rearing its head. If it is, and you’re feeling significantly worse from your search, then stop.
Having the awareness to pull yourself out of that spiral is a skill in itself. So practise checking in with yourself, and if you can recognise that it’s making you feel terrible, do yourself a favour and close the tab.
Having a resource on stand-by to ease the anxiety like Headspace App can be useful, and will help to calm your mind when you’re in fight or flight.
#4. Book in to see a doctor
If, after a thorough investigation, you think your self-diagnosed illness has some legs to stand on, then book in with a health professional. They’ll be able to properly examine you and make a call about whether your suspicions have any weight.
At the end of the day, Google doctor does not stack up to a real physician. But there is merit to advocating for yourself too.
We suggest taking note of any research you’ve found that supports your diagnosis, along with what your theory actually is, so your doctor can get a read of what information you’ve consumed, and whether it’s worth paying attention to.
And in the case that you’re seeing someone who is dismissive of your concerns, having your thoughts written down in advance can help you to stay on track, and act as a prompt if you get derailed.