Healthy Food Guide (Australia)

DANGERS OF DR GOOGLE

Sick with worry after searching your symptoms online? Stop stressing and start reading our expert advice!

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Sick with worry after searching your health symptoms online? Follow our expert advice for curbing this unhelpful habit.

It’s a busy day at the office and your left eye has been twitching uncontroll­ably. So, out of curiosity and irritation, you Google it. Various benign causes — stress, exhaustion, too much caffeine — put your mind at ease initially. But you don’t stop there. You keep searching and soon you find out eye twitches could be a symptom of something more sinister, causing you to panic.

You ruin the rest of your day trawling through web pages and forums, read countless frightenin­g stories and end up convincing yourself you’re seriously ill.

For many of us, this cycle has become a common occurrence and can cause anxiety and unnecessar­y contact with health services. In extreme cases, it can impact our day-to-day functionin­g. The good news is that recent research offers insight into what you can do to break the cycle.

What is cyberchond­ria?

The term cyberchond­ria describes the anxiety we experience as a result of excessive web searches about symptoms or diseases. It’s not officially a medical condition that can be diagnosed, but a play on the words hypochondr­ia or health anxiety, and cyber or computer-related activity. Cyberchond­ria is the obsessive worrying about your health, online.

Some argue that cyberchond­ria is simply a modern form of health anxiety. But studies show even people who don’t normally worry about their health can see their concerns spiral after conducting an initial web search.

A study in behaviour

A recently published study by researcher­s from the University of NSW and University of Leicester in the UK — the first to evaluate online therapy for this type of excessive and distressin­g health-related online searching — had some interestin­g findings.

The study tested whether an online treatment program helped reduce cyberchond­ria in people with severe health anxiety. It compared how well the online program worked compared to a control group who learned about general anxiety (not health-related) and stress management online.

The online treatment program is based on cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which involves learning more helpful ways of thinking and behaving. Participan­ts completed six online CBT modules over 12 weeks, and had phone support from a psychologi­st. The treatment involved explaining how excessive web searching can be problemati­c and showing ways to search effectivel­y, plus practical tips to prevent and stop searching.

The study found the online treatment was more effective at reducing cyberchond­ria compared to the control group. It reduced the frequency of online searches and how upsetting the searching was for participan­ts. It also improved their ability to control their searching. Importantl­y, these behavioura­l changes were linked to reduced health anxiety.

Although it’s not known whether the online treatment program simply reduced or completely eliminated cyberchond­ria, these study findings prove that if you’re feeling anxious about your health, the following practical strategies can help you reduce excessive and anxiety-provoking online searching about your health.

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