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Anxiety Increases with Online Health Searches

A study of so-called cyberchondriacs finds that those who are uncomfortable with uncertainty only feel worse the more they search online for health symptoms. Christie Nicholson reports

A hypochondriac can turn indigestion into a heart attack faster than you can say myocardial infarction. And thanks to the Internet’s unlimited supply of medical information, there’s an online version of the condition—call it cyberchondria.

Now a study has identified which people are most at risk of becoming victims of serious cyberchondria.

More than 500 adults were surveyed about their ability to handle uncertainty, and their levels of anxiety about their current health. They were also asked to rate how much they felt online health searches affected their anxiety.

The results: those volunteers who were poorest at dealing with uncertainty did the most searching about symptoms and illnesses. And as they searched, their levels of anxiety significantly increased. The study is in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

The researchers say that people with an “intolerance of uncertainty” can alleviate anxiety by using cognitive strategies—for example, reminding themselves that it’s doubtful they will find a definitive explanation for their ambiguous symptoms. After all, although Google says that the throbbing in your head might mean you have six weeks to live, it’s much more likely that Arnold is right: “It’s not a tumor! It’s not a tumor, at all.

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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