Dr. Google and Cyberchondriasis

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

The Internet age has created many innovations that affect our lives in many ways. As recently as thirty years ago, if someone wanted to research a specific topic, you would have to visit the library and spend many hours poring over numerous books until you started to acquire some of the information you were seeking. Now, much of that information can be retrieved within seconds. Being that the Internet is the Wild West, much of that information is unreliable or outright false. This has major ramifications for people who are looking for information regarding their own health and can be outright harmful for those who suffer from health-related anxiety. 

There are two types of health-related anxiety. One is called illness anxiety disorder and refers to someone who is preoccupied with the fear that they suffer from a severe medical illness. The other type of health-related anxiety is called somatic symptom disorder and refers to someone who actually feels physical symptoms and is preoccupied with the fear that those symptoms are the signs of a severe medical illness. Until recently, these two disorders were bundled together in a broader category known as hypochondriasis.

Individuals who have a predisposition to anxiety can develop health-related anxiety. Typical symptoms of this form of anxiety include preoccupation with the thought of getting a disease, worrying that minor everyday symptoms are signs of a severe illness, finding no reassurance from tests that show a clean bill of health, acute anxiety that interferes with the ability to function, frequently making appointments at the doctor, and frequent Internet searches regarding various medical conditions.

This last symptom is what we want to focus on in this article. Dr. Google is often the first “physician” that people consult with when they have a medical concern. If you are not predisposed to anxiety and you have enough common sense to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources of information then the Internet can be an invaluable resource. Educating yourself before consulting with your doctor makes you into an informed consumer of the medical industry. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, if you have a predisposition to anxiety, then Dr. Google can be so scary that merely “asking him a question” can send you into a tizzy. If you start typing a question into the Google search box, the artificial intelligence (AI) will offer you suggestions how to complete your question. Therefore, if you type in, “Is eye twitching a sign of…” Google will offer the following suggestions: MS, allergies, heart attack, stroke, pink eye, and even labor! 

Again, if you do not have a predisposition to health-related anxiety, this will not trigger you. However, if you do have such a predisposition, then that can be very scary. Furthermore, when someone with health-related anxiety finds on the Internet that a headache can be a symptom of a brain tumor, they will immediately suspect the worst and no amount of information or testing will shake them out of their fears. Colloquially, this condition has become known as cyberchondriasis, which is a takeoff from the older term of hypochondriasis.

If you suffer from health-related anxiety, going to a therapist with training and experience in anxiety disorders can help you realize that your concerns are irrational, that it is normal to feel sensations in your body, and that you should stop searching the Internet for medical information and advice.

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