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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

No More Drama…

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…is it possible that it IS more than a Mary J. Blige song? 

Al Giordano at the Huffington Post discusses the “individual as country” effect that  has been going on in America:

“Not only were Americans still being divided and economically segregated as white against black against brown against red against yellow, but by far more trivial lines of division: Apple vs. PC users, vegans vs. meat eaters, or dog owners vs. cat owners, or, concretely and absurdly back in my home town: dog owners versus young parents are at Civil War already in some neighborhoods when it comes to policies of determining the use of public parks and playgrounds in New York City.”

In an “OMG” moment, I realize that he just phrased something that has been binging around in my sleep-deprived brain as an “almost blog post” for months.  (More eloquently than I ever could, of course.)  Is this true?  Have we really been digging ourselves into holes of solitude, building walls out of almost anything that we can scrape together – iPods stuffed in ears, refusing to hear…cell phones and Blackberries as blinkers…laptops preventing our hands from reaching out to one another?  Instead of using technological resources to bridge gaps, are we creating new ones?

  My original idea on the subject was how bringing an iPod to a party can be construed as a social faux pas, a millenial kitschy-koo piece on how demanding a playlist be heard by a host who wants to set a particular tenor at a gathering is rude.  A fluff piece.  Somewhere in there I had thought about lamenting that the loss of mainstream radio stations has precluded us from a common experience.

Common experience – bingo, a precipitate!  Giordano’s piece caused this idea to crystallize and fall out of the cutesy technology solute.   Giordano, the politico, states that one of the reason for the Obama campaign’s success is that the candidate himself stands by the “no drama” meme, demanding that those involved remember that the campaign is not about them.

Naturally, I will not dispute such wisdom, though I wasn’t thinking politically. 

It’s NOT about you.  It’s about US.   

We need a common experience, even if it’s not immediately recognizable, or on an altruistic level.   It’s not being able to recite the rest of an advertising jingle (thanks to TiVo,) it’s not knowing the words to the #1 song according to Billboard (thanks to iTunes.)  I can’t even argue for the internet or many of its watering holes (Facebook/MySpace.)  It’s something much more intangible than a definition of patriotism, or of Christianity.

This is the part where one might expect the Hallmark moment, where you read the words, “What it IS…” followed by a platitude of some sort.  Problem is, I wouldn’t dare finish such a sentence.  As much as I think that we need one, I haven’t a clue as to “what it is.”

Any ideas?       

Written by Jen Szymanski

June 7, 2008 at 12:37 am