You can Google any symptoms, illness or syndrome and get results summarizing the relevant information. 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?
A sneaky downside
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 that googling symptoms can worsen health anxiety.
When health anxiety becomes a significant problem, it’s called illness anxiety disorder. 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).
How googling symptoms can be dangerous
These excessive health-related behaviors, like repeatedly googling symptoms, 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 a focus of health anxiety. 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?
Consider your motivation
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 sure 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 googling symptoms and generally researching 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 cognitive-behavioral therapist.
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