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Health Anxiety Fueled by Online Searching

     

Most people worry about their health sometimes—more than two-thirds of us are anxious about our health, according to an American Psychiatric Association national poll released in May. We may do a quick Google search, take a look on WebMD or use a handy symptom checker for some basic information and reassurance. But for some, the worry and anxiety become severe, intense and persistent. The extensive amounts of health information easily available on the internet may worsen the problem.

woman computer (2).jpgIllness anxiety disorder is identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), as a fear of illness. People with illness anxiety disorder, also referred to as health anxiety, are obsessed with having an illness or believing they may possibly get sick. This condition was previously called hypochondriasis. The person may have minor physical concerns, but the main problem is a constant worry about being sick that causes problems in their daily life. They may focus on health behaviors, such as taking vitamins, or may arrange to avoid situations that might expose them to health risks, such as traveling or visiting a sick relative. They may be preoccupied with functions such as breathing or heartbeat or conditions like lightheadedness or headaches.

In addition, the physical symptoms of anxiety (such as muscle tension, rapid heartbeat) can create a cycle of further worry about potential health conditions. People with illness anxiety disorder are not reassured or relieved that they are healthy, even with positive physical exams and tests.

The concern may extend to worry about mental health as well as physical health. One study found that people in the general population worried about their physical health and mental equally and that a small portion of people may have high levels of mental health anxiety requiring treatment. Illness anxiety affects an estimated 6 percent of people at some point in their lives. Some have raised concerns that health anxiety may be increasing because of internet searching.

The vast amounts of easily searchable, online health information has given rise to related condition called cyberchondria. Though not an official diagnosis listed in DSM-5, cyberchondria refers to a condition in which repeated internet searches for medical information lead to excessive worry about one’s health. Cyberchondria is associated with symptoms of health anxiety.

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Access to extensive online health information, symptom trackers, etc. may affect people differently. One study found that for people with high health anxiety, seeking symptom information online led to greater anxiety. However, those with low levels of anxiety were more likely to experience relief as a result of seeking symptom information online.

Illness anxiety disorder is often not diagnosed in the health care setting. But there are several effective treatments available. Cognitive behavior therapy (in person or delivered online) can help people correct irrational beliefs and learn to cope with some uncertainty surrounding health. Other effective treatments include stress management, mindfulness training and acceptance and commitment therapy. The treatments can be individual or in a group setting. Antidepressants are sometimes used as part of treatment.

A similar condition, somatic symptom disorder, involves a person focusing on physical symptoms, such as pain, weakness or shortness of breath, and leading to major distress and/or problems functioning. The physical symptoms may or may not be associated with a diagnosed medical condition, but the person is experiencing symptoms and believes they are sick. Illness anxiety disorder emphasizes preoccupation with having or getting a serious physical illness, less emphasis on physical symptoms.

References

  • Typer P. Recent advances in Understanding and Treatment of Health Anxiety. Current Psychiatry Report. 2018, 20(7);49
  • Hoffmann D, et al. Development of Feasibility Testing of Internet-Delivered Acceptancee and Commitment Therapy for Severe Health Anxiety: Pilot Study. JMIR Mental Health. 2018, 5(2);e28.
  • Commons, D, Greenwood KM, Anderson, RA. A Preliminary Investigation into Worry about Mental Health: Development of the Mental Health Anxiety Inventory. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy. 2016, 44:347-360.
  • Doherty-Torstrick, ER, Walton KE, Fallon BA. Cyberchondria: Parsing Health Anxiety from Online Behavior. Psychosomatics. 2016, 57(4);390-400.

     

AnxietyPatients and FamiliesSomatic Symptom Disorder

 

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