Lost in the search (engine)

It had been days that Ria’s life was confined to her work station and bed in her home cum office. As the colourful spots flashed in the periphery of her vision, she realized that the mild headache she’d been ignoring for days had started throbbing violently across her head. The clock on the far wall struck midnight and she decided to call it a day

Before hitting the pillow she reluctantly picked her Smartphone and keyed in her symptoms on the search engine. Even before she could finish typing, the search suggestions that popped up quickened her pulse.  And as she began navigating through the search results that populated the screen, her eyes got fixated on that one link as everything around began to dissolve from view. Panic started seeping in as she read how a severe headache could be a sign of a deadly brain tumour or bleeding in the brain.  She spent hours skimming through various links and reading as much as she could. The swarming information and dread it brought about numbed her sense of discretion. The wave of exhaustion swept over her and she drifted to sleep with her Smartphone still clutched in her cold and numb fingers.

Cyberchondria takes medical anxiety to new heights

“We are drowning in information while starving for knowledge”, says John Naisbitt, American author and speaker, which is pretty much true especially if we are speaking of Cyberchondria. In this era of technium with everything on our fingertips, it’s not just our personal and professional lives that are migrating to digital world, but our anxiety and health issues too.

Cyberchondria is the condition where a person obsessively spends countless hours on internet in an attempt to self-diagnose symptoms and gets anxious over worst case scenarios. Whereas hypochondria is a recognized clinical disorder in which the irrational tendency at work in the brains of people leads them to worry excessively over perceived health symptoms and doesn’t let them calm down or get assured even by the medical professionals, cyberchondria is considered to be a more general condition which may get further escalated based on the unpleasant information available online.

Cyberchondria, lost in serach engine

What causes Cyberchondria

According to a study conducted by Psychologist Thomas Fergus of Baylor University, people with higher intolerance to uncertainty tend to tip towards Cyberchondriac tendencies. Those who wish to know everything that future has in store for them and can’t stand uncertainty are more likely to look for answers on internet, which is swarming with myriad of answers, out of which the unpleasant and negative ones may send the anxiety shooting further.

Those having hypochondriac tendency are more likely to be affected by this condition with internet being the perfect place to feed their fears and stoke their anxieties. Another common trend these days is new mothers constantly seeking health and medical advice for their babies on search engines or mom/self help groups rather than seeking professional help.

The missing human factor

Though it’s okay to have few doubts about your physical and mental well being and previous generations faced it too, however, before technology took over if symptoms seemed persistent and serious, people would often get a thorough health-check up done. Now that everything you need or rather wish to know is just few clicks or taps away, things have taken a drastic turn for the good, bad or perhaps both.

Search engines, unlike human physicians, do not understand diagnostic reasoning and can’t use their discretion to accommodate intensity of symptoms and other factors like age, family history etc. Moreover, search results don’t appear in the order of how close it is to an individual’s problem; rather the ranking algorithms in search engines serve back what has been searched most by previous users and has received maximum number of clicks.

It may have dire consequences

Fixation over perceived illness and searching symptoms online may increase stress levels which can in-turn manifest in the form of health issues or weakened immune system. In severe cases, cyberchondria may drastically hit a person’s lifestyle and routine, as they end up wasting hours on internet looking for perceived scenarios ignoring their work and other commitments. Some may even go to the extent of undergoing expensive medical tests or buying costly treatment online, which may not be genuine.

So by the time Ria finishes her internet research and books an appointment with her doctor, she’s probably already arrived to worst possible conclusion in her head and wouldn’t be convinced unless her doctor prescribes scans and tests to rule out a brain tumour.

Cyberchondria can also affect doctor-patient relationship negatively. A doctor has been traditionally seen as a reliable source of information for diagnosis and treatment. However, when patients tend to obsessively gather all the information possible, irrespective of the source and credibility, it poses a challenge to the doctors for treating such misinformed and sceptical patients who may not believe the doctor or may not cooperate with the treatment.

What to do instead

According to a study it’s our survival instinct that makes us more sensitive towards negative and unpleasant news, and thus is considered something evolutionary.  However, when our anxiety over perceived health issues gets out of control, it can be exhausting to incessantly worry over any unknown symptoms and health issues and constantly trying to seek the explanations over internet, and falling into the perpetual vicious cycle of anxiety –fed doubt and fear.

If you find yourself caught in this trap which seems to sabotage your life, here are few things to try.

  • Ample self-care, healthy lifestyle, exercise and routine health checkups are a good way to keep yourself fit and beating the anxiety.
  • Mindfulness is a wonderful thing to find peace within self. Be mindful of where your anxious thoughts are stemming from and question your beliefs. Also being mindful of the time spent on internet seeking answers is essential. A frequent digital- detox where you stay away from gadgets and refrain from online search can be a good thing to implement in your routine.
  • If you find any worrying symptoms, don’t just rely on internet, rather meet your doctor. Also make it a point to talk to your doctor about your fears. Ask him to suggest some reliable online sources of health information if that helps you put your anxiety to ease.
  • If you find that despite your efforts anxiety is closing in on you, seek the help of a mental health professional.

Internet can be a brilliant tool to access information and when it is used as a source of information instead of self diagnosis tool, it may enable people to get better at self-care and ask well-informed questions to the doctors. However, it’s essential to note that instead of letting it dictate us by playing on our fears we need to learn to utilize it in moderation to make our lives better.

About the author

Asma Ansari is a professional writer with versatile experience in content writing, creative writing, story development and technical writing. Her articles have been published in the leading dailies of the country.