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How googling your symptoms online could be fuelling ‘cyberchondria’

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If we’re truthful with ourselves, we’d all admit that we’ve consulted Dr. Google on several occasions to find out what our ailments mean. Whether it’s a sports-induced injury or a nasty cough we’ve had for the third day in a row, we know that after we’ve sent that question into cyberspace, the millions of results that will inevitably come firing back at us are only likely to instil fear – but we sometimes just can’t help ourselves.

Which is why we weren’t surprised to learn that worrying excessively about our health – fuelled by consulting the internet about our symptoms – is a growing problem in the UK, a study has found.

Funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the study involved 444 people aged 16-75 years old, all of whom had visited various departments at five general hospitals in England.

Researchers found one in five people who attended hospital outpatient appointments suffered from health anxiety – although only one in ten were ever diagnosed with an illness.

Over a five-year period, outpatients became increasingly likely to mistake symptoms of health anxiety for physical illnesses.


Read more: When should you take time off work for your mental health?


The researchers also found that some people suffering from health anxiety had previous health scares and as result were anxious that their ailment had returned.

Even when doctors reassured patients that everything was fine, they continued to look for a diagnosis – which led to unnecessary medical appointments.

Professor Peter Tyrer, emeritus professor in community psychiatry at Imperial College London, believes the rising problem is in part being fuelled by ‘cyberchondria’, a psychological ailment caused by people obsessively looking up their symptoms online.

"We suspect that [health anxiety] is increasing in frequency because of what is now called 'cyberchondria',” he told the BBC.

"This is because people now go to their GPs with a whole list of things they've looked up on the internet, and the poor GP, five minutes into the consultation, has four pages of reading to do.

"Dr Google is very informative, but he doesn't put things in the right proportion."

Anxiety

Researchers are calling for guidelines to be issued to the NHS to help identity it

Having estimated the problem could be costing the NHS at least £420 million a year, the researchers – mostly mental health experts – are calling for guidelines to be issued to the NHS to help identify ‘cyberchondria’ and said psychotherapy could reduce anxiety and should be available in all hospitals.


Read more: What is high-functioning anxiety – and are you suffering from it?


Yvonne Lisseman Stones, a general nurse at Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS foundation trust, said working on the study had provided her with the most satisfaction throughout her 40 years of nursing, “simply because it changes lives”.

Yvonne said: “One of my patients had stopped all physical activity because of severe health anxiety, but after therapy was able to climb Mount Snowdon, where he wrote to me and said ‘thank you for making me feel on top of the world’,” she told The Guardian

If you suffer from anxiety, experts advise that you visit you GP to explore the number of treatments available.

You can find out more information – including a series of approved self-care tips – on the Mind website.

Images: Jiri Wagner

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