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Do You Have Cyberchondria?

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Are you feeling kind of “off?” Fatigued, headachy, maybe a little nauseous? What do you do? If you’re like many of us, you hit the internet for an instant answer.  After hours of entering symptoms, and sifting through endless lists of conditions and diseases, you’ve got an answer: you definitely have a brain tumor. Realistically, you probably don’t. But what you might have is a new type of anxiety disorder, called cyberchondria.

WebMD, one of the most popular and “trusted” medical advice sites, draws about 85 million visitors a month. It’s in good company: according to a 2009 poll, 61% of Americans claim to use the web for medical advice. The problem is that, while the services can be helpful, when they’re misused, they create a whole host of new issues. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

“Finances” is certainly a plausible answer. About 17% of Americans are uninsured, and don’t want to cough up the cost (or even in some cases, the copay) for an office visit.  But that doesn’t really explain why we’re so ready to self-diagnose thyroid cancer, when it’s more likely that we have a common sore throat. Or why we end up rushing, panic stricken, to the ER, running up enormous and entirely unnecessary medical bills. There are some good explanations that have their roots not in our bank accounts, but instead are in neuroscience and psychology.  Here are three to consider before you open your browser to see what that thing is on your foot.

Your Brain Likes Order and Sees Patterns

Imagine how our brains interprets two cherries and a bar sign on a slot machine. It instantly recognizes that we’re close to a win (three cherries.) Even though we haven’t actually hit the jackpot, we still catch a little thrill (“darn, I was so close!”),  as well as a mini natural high (a jolt of the endogenous opiate dopamine.) Both of these encourage us to pull the lever on the one armed bandit again.

This “near miss” phenomenon also happens when we think we’re exhibiting two out of three symptoms for a rare medical condition. Our brain may give up on one disease, but we feel that we’re close – and are inspired to look further, even when there’s nothing there.  Moreover, our brains evolved to discern patterns of all kinds. While this skill can be very handy when you’re roaming the jungle intent upon survival, sometimes we do it so well that we a pattern even when none exists. So, when your brain reads a list of symptoms on a medical site, and finds that you are exhibiting three out of six symptoms for a disease, you tend to conclude that you do have (or will get) the rest, even if they aren’t any more specific than malaise, headache, and the sniffles.

Your Brain is Wired to Love a Good Story 

Another plausible explanation? We like to know “why.” To be more blunt, we like a good story. And if we are perusing WebMD, we probably are not a trained physician, our brains will fill in the details where there are gaps. It doesn’t matter if the specifics aren’t based in reality, or whether they reflect what happened to a friend of a friend.

We Want Control

Finally, we like to be captains of our own fates. A recent UC Davis study found that we still hit the internet for answers, even after we’ve seen our doctors.  There’s nothing scarier for some of us than to put our lives in the hands of another human being, especially one we don’t see very often. It’s easier for us to read bad news on a small backlit screen than to have to face another human who might tell us we are ill, or have to submit to tests. Furthermore, we can get an answer right now and do something about whatever is bothering us, even if it’s the wrong remedy.

Are you guilty of cyberchondria?

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Written by Jen Szymanski

September 14, 2012 at 10:07 am