You can Google any illness and get results summarizing the symptoms, treatments, and other details about that condition. Websites like WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and MedlinePlus make a wealth of health information available to everyone. WebMD even has an interactive feature where you enter symptoms, and it then generates a list of potential diagnoses and the likelihood each is valid. Isn’t the Internet great?
Not always. For individuals with some anxiety disorders, the ease of obtaining this information on the internet can add to their worry and distress. Why? One might think this is because reading about serious conditions can be upsetting, especially for those anxious about their health. This is true, but is not the reason researching information online can worsen health anxiety.
Illness Anxiety Disorder, as defined by the DSM-5 (the standard classification of mental health disorders), includes being preoccupied with having or getting a serious illness, even though symptoms are absent (or very mild), as well as being easily alarmed about personal health status. It also includes excessive health-related behaviors (e.g., researching medical conditions, repeatedly checking for signs of illness, avoiding doctor appointments).
Health Anxiety and Behavior
It’s these excessive health-related behaviors, like repeatedly searching symptoms on the Internet, which keep health anxiety in place and make it worse. Researching health fears increases anxiety because it teaches our minds to “be on the lookout” for scary health information. This makes us pay even more attention to similar information and fears. Also, diagnoses “discovered” through internet research can become the new focus of health anxiety, even if they were never considered before. The focus of health anxiety can change over time.
So how do you know when looking up health information on the Internet is a good idea, or when it may be an unhealthy behavior?
The best way to determine this is to consider why you’re looking something up. For example, it may be helpful if you’re looking up a condition to decide about seeking care. It may also be helpful if you hope to better understand a diagnosis you received from a doctor. However, if you’re looking something up so you can be certain that it isn’t happening to you, this may be unhealthy. Similarly, if you have a hard time stopping your online research, or if you find it makes you more anxious, it’s playing an unhealthy role in your life.
It can be difficult to figure out if searching health information online is healthy or not. If you’re concerned this is a source of distress for you, consider discussing it with your health care provider or a CBT therapist.