Cyberchondria, the fear of getting sick that spills over onto the Internet: “I look for peace of mind on the internet that never comes” | Health & Wellness
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Cristina (23 years old) does not remember the first time she searched the Internet for information about a disease. She has the feeling that she has been worried all her life, despite always being healthy. One of her first concerns about her health may have arisen a few days after picking up a broken bird’s egg at the school entrance, when she heard on the news that there was an outbreak of avian flu. She assures that the uneasiness lasted a long time, until she realized that, if it was really dangerous, something would have already happened to him. Over the years, he began to google as soon as something worried him: “I know that it will not help me to look for it, and I could even just go to the doctor, but I still do it and try to find a peace of mind that never comes,” he explains. This behavior has a name: cyberchondria, the anxiety about one’s own health that results from excessive Internet searches.
He also suffered from this type of anxiety when he was younger Eoin McElroy, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Ulster (Northern Ireland). In 2014 he led an analysis of cyberchondria, which resulted in the Cyberchondria Severity Scale (CSS). The scale consists of 33 elements that serve to determine the level of anxiety of this type that the respondent suffers, but not with a diagnostic intention, as McElroy himself explains by video call to EL PAÍS: “It was about answering research questions, rather than diagnosing someone. Furthermore, cyberchondriasis is not necessarily a psychiatric disorder; in fact, it is something that almost everyone does to some degree nowadays,” he insists. According to the IV Health and Life Study of the insurer AEGON, almost 44% of the 1,600 Spaniards interviewed look for information on the web when they have any symptoms.
Among the situations raised by CSS are: “If I have an inexplicable bodily sensation, I search for it on the internet”, “I search for the same symptoms on more than one occasion”, “everything irritates me more easily after having done a search online about health” or “when my doctor dismantles the search I have done, I stop worrying”. According to Pilar Jiménez, a psychologist at the Las Mimosas Residence (Serranillos del Valle, Madrid), hypochondria “will always end up in the hospital because, no matter how much they search the internet, in the end they will go to a specialist to ask, to get tests and to try to show that it is real that they are sick and that something must be done about it, ”he says.
The problem with hypochondria is that the person does not want to get sick, but they are convinced that they are, so they continually look for something that reinforces that idea that they are sick, precisely to be able to do something about it and be able to be cured, explains Jiménez. . “There is never an end. Because, furthermore, in one video or another or on one page or another you will find something that is similar to what happens to you or what you feel. The more information, the more likely you are to come across something with which you identify”, insists the psychologist.
McElroy agrees that cyberchondriasis, and hypochondriasis in general, is a paradox: “People seek reassurance which ends up accentuating their anxiety. This shows how the internet and communication on-line They have changed our day to day.”
Cristina admits that she doesn’t always go home calm after a visit to the doctor: “What if they haven’t looked well?” She assures that this persistence of doubt is sometimes due to the fact that she feels that the health workers have not given importance to her concerns or have not carried out all the possible tests. McElroy emphasizes that “the opinions of professionals should be taken into account more than anything else.” However, someone who suffers from health anxiety can have a hard time ruling out those dire scenarios that have been keeping them up at night, especially if, as in the case of Cristina, she feels that the professional has not taken her seriously because she knows that her concerns they are recurring.
This poses a dilemma. On the one hand, the patient needs to go to the professional to find peace of mind, but, on the other, this entails a significant health expense, both for the visits made to the center and for the tests that are carried out (which have repercussions on the State and the patients). “Escalations of common symptoms to serious concerns can lead to unnecessary anxiety, time-consuming, and costly appointments with healthcare professionals,” explain Ryen W. White and Eric Horvitz in a study published in 2009.
The Northern Irish researcher explains that one of the fundamental aspects of cyberchondriasis is another type of escalation, that of the searches that are carried out: “If I have a headache, I search Google and see pages about health where it says that this is a common symptom of dehydration or migraines, people tend to escalate their searches, even if they have already obtained information and end up reading about brain tumors”. McElroy relates it to what he calls “an intolerance of uncertainty.” “There are people who need to explore all possible outcomes; others are happier or less curious,” he comments.
The communication director of the College of Political Science and Sociology of Madrid, Ana Isabel Fernández Ilustre, recalls that, in addition, “we are the society of immediacy”, and adds: “We need the answer here and now. There are more and more immediate response channels, such as chats on-line. I think we could talk about a generalized behavior”.
When McElroy prepared his study in 2014, some social networks that are part of our daily lives at that time had just been created, such as Instagram, or did not even exist, such as TikTok. Although those who suffer from cyberchondria still search for symptoms on Google, with these platforms they do not even have to go looking for the information, but they can find it unintentionally. “I don’t usually look for videos related to this on social networks, but if someone who has a disease appears to me and I think I have some symptoms, that is the starting point to start looking and worrying,” explains Cristina.
According to a Canadian study published this year, which analyzes videos uploaded to TikTok that address attention deficit, “although social networks help reduce the stigma of mental health and increase knowledge about health, there is concern about misinformation and the potential cyberchondria due to the volume of unmoderated content generated by users”, and goes further: “There is a risk that overdiagnosis or misdiagnosis will increase”.
Pilar Jiménez explains that, unlike the traditional hypochondria, now everything is much more accessible, and what 20 years ago meant for a person to go from doctor to doctor, “now means spending three hours in front of the mobile searching the networks”. “By facilitating it, the symptom worsens,” she summarizes. In addition, despite the fact that, like Cristina, users have not searched for these videos, “the algorithm is going to recommend content of the same style and on the same topics, so it becomes the whiting that bites its tail and there is no more end”, regrets the psychologist.
For Fernández Ilustre, in addition to that, it must be taken into account that the fact that “the algorithm is confirming their theories is very bad.” “They are behavior reinforcers. Algorithms help us get into thought bubbles”, he assures. According to him, it is likely that young users are more vulnerable than older ones to the power of algorithms, because, although they understand the world of social networks better, they are more exposed on these platforms.
The psychologist believes that it is very difficult for the pandemic to have created these problems from scratch: “What it will have done is aggravate a tendency or a vulnerability factor that was already there, in a person who was already anxious and who was already worried about his health.” Even so, Fernández Ilustre defends that the influence of the situation could have been greater: “It has affected both people at risk and those who are not. For the first time we have felt vulnerable as a society. And it also has to do with the fact that access to primary care is becoming more complicated. It is natural that there is a tendency to look for that answer online.”
Cristina acknowledges that, when watching videos on social networks or looking for symptoms on the internet, she does not usually pay attention to the sources she consults. In fact, he assures that, if the web page that contains the information is from a recognized clinic or center, he is even more concerned when thinking that, if he has the symptoms that are described there, in a reliable place, surely he suffers from said disease. However, the experts consulted explain that it is very important to consult truthful sources and not trust non-professional individuals who talk about health matters on the Internet, in general, and on social networks, in particular.
Jiménez considers that asking someone who suffers from hypochondria or cyberchondria not to do these searches would be somewhat “absurd”, “but, at the very least, it is important that they look for reliable sources and always, always consult a professional.” According to a British study published this month, after spending a week without social networks, people experience notable improvements in their mental health, depression and anxiety.