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Confessions of a Cyberchondriac

cyberchondria

Three months ago, I was working out and felt a hardness in my right breast. I remembered a friend posting on social media about finding out she had breast cancer. She was my age.

I freaked out.

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I ran to my phone in the locker room and Googled “hard feeling in the right breast.” I scrolled down the page to find the worst-case scenario: lobular breast cancer (LBC).

I copied the text, hit the search engine, and went on a deep dive into the internet that involved:

  • reading stories about women with LBC on forums that are five pages down the Google search
  • reading all medical papers on the topic
  • figuring out all the treatment options

The scenario built in my head to where I’m at the hospital about to get surgery. Who’ll be there, I wondered? What if I can’t finish my book before I die?

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This new anxiety that develops alongside a Google search? It’s called cyberchondria.

I picked up the phone and called my doctor in Lebanon. I could tell what he was thinking.

Not again.

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He reassured me, like he always does, and, like I always do when I’m in my hypochondriac trance, I didn’t believe him.

I booked a gynecologist appointment in San Francisco and proceeded to obsess all day and night by touching my breast and getting distracted at work and with my friends.

The most challenging part during these trances — or “freakouts” — is the shame of my reaction. My fears feel out of my control. My mind knows they’re ridiculous and I’m not making sense. My anxiety doubles until I finally get the tests done. Tests that I have to beg the doctor to order for me.

After the mammography, when nothing was found, I felt a relief ... mixed with more embarrassment. Why did I make my body go through this trauma, leave the present moment with my loved ones, and spend money on doctors and tests?

My friends call me a hypochondriac.

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Turns out I’m a cyberchondriac, and I’m not the only one.

Introducing cyberchondria

Prevalence of hypochondriasis
Hypochondria has been reported by people practicing medicine to be about 4 to 9 percent of their general medical practice.

With the rise of the internet and free information at our fingertips, worrying about our health is a click away. This new anxiety that develops alongside a Google search? It’s called cyberchondria.

According to Pew Research Center, 72 percent of surveyed internet users have searched for health information online in the past year, and 35 percent of U.S. adults have tried to self-diagnose a medical condition using the internet. Another study found that 10 percent of participants felt anxiety and fear over the medical information they find online.

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To start with, there are many valid reasons to worry about our health:

1. The stories we hear: Now that we spend our days on social media, no wonder we find out that our friend’s distant cousin had cancer and died — a story we would normally not know off if we weren’t so connected.

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2. Negativity bias: One of the reasons why we remember and notice the negatives more than the positives is evolutionary and out of our control. Our brains are simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news for survival purposes.

3. Free misinformation: According to an article in The New York Times Magazine, some sites that appear when you search for a symptom are likely to show you a worst-case scenario and scare you for their financial gains.

By contrast, if you plug “headache” and “WebMD” into Google, the Web opens to the glamorous, photo-dominated “Migraines and Headaches Health Center,” a sound-and-light show that seems itself like a headache trigger.
– Virginia Heffernan, New York Times Magazine

4. We live in a world that’s arguably more stressful: According to Professor Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me,” weaker community ties, more focus on goals, and the high expectations we put on ourselves — let alone the social media-induced comparison — can make for a more stressful life.

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Is the internet a trigger for health anxiety?

There are many emotional factors going on for you that can trigger health worries, too.

Going through a stressful period of your life, like an illness or death in your family? You may have learned how to (not) manage your stress due to growing up with a family member who worried a lot about their (and your) health. In fact, my father used to spend his time going from doctor to doctor, despite being healthy. Perhaps it’s hereditary?

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Reexamine the situation and see what triggered your fear. Sometimes the anxiety is unrelated to the health.

You may be vulnerable to health anxiety because you’re a worrier in general. Or sometimes, your health worry is a symptom of depression or anxiety disorder, which needs to be recognized in order to receive treatment. And sometimes, we worry about health because (subconsciously) we’re seeking attention from our friends and family.

In many of these cases, seeing a therapist or a counselor is always helpful.

What to do when you get a cyberchondria attack

Write this down somewhere you can look back to before you go down a rabbit hole of searches.

Tips for a cyberchondriac attack
  • Don’t shame yourself.
  • Question your beliefs.
  • Drop into your body and meditate.
  • Talk about your fears with your primary care doctor to learn coping strategies.
  • Remember it’s not all you.

1. Don’t shame yourself: You could be really in distress and not pretending. Your fears come from somewhere sometimes too deep and too old to recognize. The best way to get out of shame is to speak to a trusted friend or someone who has a similar tendency to worry who’d get you.

2. Question your beliefs: I like to use the method of Byron Katie when I’m stuck. It involves questioning the belief stressing you out, turning it around, and giving evidence why it’s not true.

3. Drop into your body: Breathe deeply. Feel your emotions. Sometimes a guided meditation helps (there are many different types, so if one doesn’t work, try another).

4. Talk about your fears with your primary care doctor: Telling them about your tendency to worry and making sure you get in touch with them can help alleviate fears and jumping to conclusions.

5. Remember it’s not all you: The environment we live in and the online misinformation is designed to scare us.

After the fact, reexamine the situation and see what triggered your fear. Sometimes the anxiety is unrelated to the health and can be work-related.

Living as a cyberchondriac

Yesterday, I woke up with yet another mysterious pain on the left side of my stomach. As I was reaching to my phone to Google the symptom, I took a deep breath and stopped myself.

Instead, I took a piece of paper and wrote down the belief that’s causing my stress: The pain is a serious illness. I sat there and questioned my thoughts.

Eventually, my anxiety calmed down. And when it did, I reminded myself that the health worry has to do with my childhood trauma, possibly passed down from my father — but ultimately it doesn’t have to dictate me. All to say, that with enough compassion and presence from yourself, cyberchondria is manageable.


Jessica writes about love, life, and what we’re scared to talk about. She’s been published in Time, The Huffington Post, Forbes, and more, and is currently working on her first book, “Child of the Moon.” You can read her work here, ask her anything on Twitter, or stalk her on Instagram.

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