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


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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