When Searching for Medical Information Becomes An Unhealthy Obsession

Anxious patients suffering from cyberchondria can often be treated through cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Though most people get nervous about their health from time to time, chronic health anxiety can be debilitating, interfering with work and relationships, and causing sufferers to spend excessive amounts time worrying about medical conditions. Severity can range from occasional worry to chronic preoccupation that meets the diagnostic criteria for hypochondriasis,1 which is now represented by the diagnoses of somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder in the DSM-5.2

Estimates of the prevalence of health anxiety vary, but “generally 5-12% is something researchers can agree on,” said Karmpaul Singh, PhD, a researcher at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Easy access to online medical information has made it even more challenging for sufferers to manage their fear of illness, and may have created a pathway to the development of the disorder.3 “Excessive reassurance seeking may be particularly likely to result in disproportionate Internet use for health purposes (so-called “cyberchondria”).”1   

In the past year, 72% of Americans have searched for health-related information online.1 These searches typically involve symptomatic information — matching one’s symptoms with a possible disorder — and health improvement information related to diets and exercise, for example. The latter have not generally been associated with anxiety, while the former have.

Research by Singh and his colleague, Richard J. Brown, PhD, ClinPsyD, showed that, among 255 undergraduate and post-graduate students, those with health anxiety had higher rates of health-related internet use than those who were not health-anxious.1 They also found that “health anxious individuals who searched for symptomatic information often felt more anxious than before their search,” says Singh. “Such individuals are theorized to be intolerant to uncertainty, and uncertainty about the meaning of their symptoms may invoke a fearful, anxious response —“‘Oh my goodness, why are my fingertips numb?!’”

Indeed, findings by graduate student Aaron M. Norr, MS, and his colleagues at Florida State University suggest intolerance of uncertainty (IU) and anxiety sensitivity (AS) may be risk factors for the development of cyberchondria, as both were associated with increased anxiety in response to unexplained physical sensations.