Avoiding Anxieties From Researching Your Own Symptoms On The Web.

Cyberchondria - A Growing Concern



Web-Induced Medical Anxieties


Rarely does a day go by in my clinical arena where a patient does not share some tidbit of medical data they gleamed off the web.  I am totally open to patient generated research, but it all needs to be taken within context.


A patient’s personal research into a medical problem will often bring up areas for discussion that physicians’ may not have felt important or worthy of discussion.  But one word of caution is essential – CONTEXT.


The volume of medical information and research out there on the web is nearly infinite.  Even a seasoned clinician/doctor/nurse practitioner could spend countless hours researching and reading from a variety of sources.  Sifting through the medical jargon without a substantial medical background and actually getting a clear picture of what the author is attempting to convey would be daunting.


Patients often become anxious when they have a specific symptom and in the course of their online research, arrive at a rare disease or incurable problem.  The reality is that many disease states have overlapping symptoms and signs with many other common illnesses.  Take for example: a fast heart rate.  This sign can go along with: anxiety, pain, dehydration, blood loss, impending shock and collapse of the circulatory system, excess stress hormones from an endocrine tumor, etc.


It is easy to see how taking this one common finding and pinning it to a specific diagnosis can be challenging. 


Another issue arises when a patient focuses on one specific disease they came across in their research and unintentionally exaggerates the findings they have that matches this particular set of signs/symptoms they discovered on the internet.  This can also lead to ignoring or minimizing other important symptoms that a doctor needs to know to arrive at the correct diagnosis.



Cyberchondria is a blended term derived from psychology and technology.  This term is widely recognized when a person develops excessive worry about a particular physical symptom or sign.  It can be a common element such as fever or muscle aches or something more ambiguous such as slightly dry skin or a muscle twitch.  Cyberchondria develops when excessive worry and concern develops around the self directed research based on online review of medical literature, case reports, medical websites or even from identifying with something posted on a personal blog.


Distorted thinking is the hallmark of Cyberchondria.  Don’t let technology drive you to quick assumptions, erroneous diagnosis or cause you to subject yourself to unnecessary tests and multiple doctor visits.  Cyberchondria results in a variety of errors in thought and reasoning such as: over generalizing, sensationalizing, premature drawing of conclusions and filtering. 


When a general conclusion is drawn from a single event, piece of data or symptom the result is often in error.  This error process is termed – OVER GENERALIZING


PREMATURE JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS is acting like the conclusion is already today’s reality.  Basing conclusions on circumstantial evidence is a prescription for anxiety and excessive worry.  The anticipation that everything is going to turn out badly is a common source of anxiety and cyberchondria.


Minimizing or discounting the positives while focusing on bringing out all the negative details, signs and symptoms is termed FILTERING.  Patients may focus so intently on a negative symptom or sign and discount or deny the positives and cause their physician to venture down the wrong road.  Excessive workups and procedures result with wasted time and resources, not to mention patients’ money.


Taking a single piece of evidence and exaggerating its importance results in SENSATIONALIZING.  Certain disease states have hallmark findings that cinch the diagnosis.  Many patients may have one or two of these findings, but sensationalizing results in complete focus and escalation of thoughts and emotions related to having a single symptom or sign.



So what can one do if they have already been sucked into the world of CYBERCHONDRIA?

Here are a few quick tips from our psychology friends.  First, examine the evidence and identify the errors that caused distorted thinking. Next, try to pinpoint what parts of the thoughts are distorted.   Create a list of worrisome thoughts and look for those that stand out as most worrisome or unrealistic.  Then focus on the various thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, and actions and write down what the benefit or negative cost associated with each.  Here is the hard part!  Pump yourself up with positive self-talk and enlist the help of your family and close friends.  And lastly, think in general terms as opposed to black and white or concrete ideas.


One last piece of advice- realize that not everything written on a medical website is written by a physician!  This may surprise many of you, but the fact is that many websites hire content writers to create their materials.  So if you are reading something that seems to strange or cumbersome to wrap your mind around – that may very well be the case. 


Good luck surfing, researching and take in all the wonders the web has to offer.  Stop by my growing blog for more insight and a look behind the curtain of medicine.

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