What’s Really Behind Your Obsessive Symptom-Googling

Cyberchondria is real. And largely unhelpful.

For those who live with hypochondria, myself included, this pandemic has added layers to our concerns around health. Many of us have spent hours Googling risks and symptoms. And as science has revealed more information about the virus and illness, some of it comforting (it’s probably not foodborne), some of it terrifying (some sufferers’ symptoms seem to be lingering for months), the anxieties have shifted, evolved — and persisted.

It turns out, the information we take in about the virus can have a surprising impact on cyberchondria, the incessant need to use online sources to track symptoms and speculate a diagnosis (or, really, to self-diagnose). Recent research carried out through surveys in Germany shows that during the pandemic, increasing anxiety around the novel coronavirus has led to an increase in cyberchondria. The study included 1,615 participants and was conducted by professors Stefanie M. Jungmann and Michael Witthöft of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in mid-March 2020 when the outbreak began within the country. Unsurprisingly, anxiety around the coronavirus itself was particularly strong in people who already had health anxiety (hypochondria). But one unexpected finding was that feeling well-informed about the virus was linked with lower virus-related anxiety levels.

“Constantly checking all the various social media channels for any Covid-19–related news 10 or 20 times per day clearly appears dysfunctional from a mental health perspective.”

“According to our findings, the feeling of being well-informed about Covid-19, for example in terms of transmission routes and survival time of the virus on certain surfaces, may serve as a buffer towards Covid-19–related anxiety and a maladaptive excessive search for information online—which we call ‘cyberchondria,’” Jungmann and Witthöft told Elemental. The researchers note that due to the cross-sectional nature of the study — in which data was gathered at one specific point in time — causal conclusions cannot be drawn, but correlations can be made. They add: “It might therefore also be possible that excessive online mental health-related search behavior undermines the feeling of being well-informed. Either way, the data suggests that less might be more in this case, which means less online searching for information seems to be associated with the subjective feeling of being better informed, and this feeling then goes along with lower Covid-19-related anxiety.” In other words, the researchers suspect that a healthy medium of staying aware of helpful coronavirus information, without going overboard and tracking every tidbit of new data, may be the way to go.

The study notes that past epidemics and pandemics also saw widespread health worries, anxiety, and safety-seeking behavior. However, the researchers were interested in learning whether people who already had health anxiety were more vulnerable to cyberchondria, as well as finding out how the health anxiety was playing out and what coping strategies were helping.

How then do we strike a balance between staying informed, and thus empowered, without overwhelming ourselves?

The researchers also described a vicious cycle of worry, wherein someone with health anxiety or hypochondria interprets bodily sensations as being harmful, which in turn increases their anxiety, and thus leads to increased bodily sensations. The Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying news cycle provide many triggers for health worries. Lack of transparency and mixed messaging from government and public health groups around standard operating procedures is also cause for concern. In addition, we aren’t yet sure whether recovery from Covid-19 brings with it long-term immunity, or if reinfection is possible. We’ve also been bombarded by conspiracy theories via social media and even family WhatsApp groups.

How then do we strike a balance between staying informed, and thus empowered, without overwhelming ourselves? Jungmann and Witthöft provide two suggestions. “First, through the selection of high-quality sources of information, and second, reasonably limiting one’s exposure time in which we confront ourselves with Covid-19–related information,” they say. “Constantly checking all the various social media channels for any Covid-19–related news 10 or 20 times per day clearly appears dysfunctional from a mental health perspective.”

Jonathan Pointer, PsychD, a chartered clinical psychologist at therapysanctuary.com, agrees with the need to stick to trustworthy news sources, and highlights the responsibility of media in communicating this information, adding, “if information about pandemics and/or other health risks was disseminated with transparent clarity, then this would help people trust these sources of information.” And indeed, the recommendation to source information from credible mediums is further backed by the World Health Organization, who have created helpful one-page infographics on dealing with stress during this pandemic, both for children and adults.

Complicating all this, of course, is that cyberchondria is a safety-seeking behavior — and all anyone wants right now is to feel safe. So never Googling a symptom may not be a realistic option, and the key is to find the coping strategy that works best for us on an individual level, which will involve emotion regulation. Jungmann and Witthöft emphasize that excessive online searches for health-related topics are primarily used to counteract high levels of anxiety. Paradoxically, this attempt to decrease anxiety backfires and increases anxiety. “Therefore our advice is to slowly and gradually reduce the time spent online (in search of health-related information). If those attempts fail, we suggest to consult a psychotherapist.”

Much has been said about self-care and mental hygiene during this pandemic. It turns out, regulating our news consumption — and logging off of social media — may be an important piece of that puzzle.

Migrant. Postdoctoral researcher. Teacher. Mental Health Advocate. Writer. Professional in the streets, loud on the sheets of paper.

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