Jill Newby is a Fellow in the School of Psychology at UNSW. She is also Research Director of the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney. Her research focuses on understanding the nature, causes and treatment of anxiety and depressive disorders, with a key focus on online treatments and self-help programs for anxiety and depression.
Why This Matters: Have you ever Googled your flu symptoms only to find out you have months left to live?
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. Soon, you find out eye twitches could be a symptom of something more sinister, causing you to panic.
You ruin the rest of the day trawling through the Google web pages and forums, reading frightening stories convincing you you’re seriously ill.
For many of us, this cycle has become common. It can cause anxiety, unnecessary contact with health services, and at the extreme, impact our day-to-day functioning.
But recently published research, the first to evaluate online therapy for this type of excessive and distressing health-related Googling, shows what can help.
It’s not an official diagnosis, but is an obvious play on the word “hypochondria”, now known as health anxiety. It’s obsessional worrying about health, online.
Some argue 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.
Cyberchondria is when searching is:
If this sounds like you, there’s help.
We tested whether an online treatment program helped reduce cyberchondria in 41 people with severe health anxiety. We compared how well it worked compared with a control group of 41 people who learned about general (not health-related) anxiety and stress management online.
The online treatment 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 explained how excessive web searching can become a problem, how to search about health effectively, and practical tools to prevent and stop it (see a summary of those tips below).
We found the online treatment was more effective at reducing cyberchondria than the control group. It helped reduce the frequency of online searches, how upsetting the searching was, and improved participants’ ability to control their searching. Importantly, these behavioural changes were linked to improvements in health anxiety.
Although we don’t know whether the program simply reduced or completely eliminated cyberchondria, these findings show if you’re feeling anxious about your health, you can use our practical strategies to reduce anxiety-provoking and excessive online searching about health.
Here are our top tips from the treatment program:
And if those don’t help, step away from Google and consult a doctor or psychologist.