Cyberchondria Worse For Those Who Fear The Unknown
October 9, 2013

Online Health Searches More Disturbing For Cyberchondriacs

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Many of us turn to the Internet to find out what ails us when we are sick. For people who have trouble handling uncertainty, however, "cyberchondria" - the online equivalent to hypochondria - becomes worse as they seek answers.

"If I'm someone who doesn't like uncertainty, I may become more anxious, search further, monitor my body more, go to the doctor more frequently -- and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities," said Thomas Fergus, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences. "If I see a site about traumatic brain injuries and have difficulties tolerating uncertainty, I might be more likely to worry that's the cause of the bump on my head."

Fergus said that doubts about health, unfounded or not, can trigger more than just fears about catastrophic disease or injury. They can also trigger worries about potential medical bills, disability and job loss - which can lead to more Internet searching, obsessing, doctor visits, unnecessary medical testing and distress.

Previous studies have shown that nearly eight out of 10 adults in the US seek medical information on the Internet.

The participant group consisted of 512 healthy adults, with a mean age of 33.4 years. Women made up 55 percent of the group, and 59 percent had at least a two-year degree. Fifty-three percent of the study group worked at least 20 hours weekly, and 67 percent was unmarried.

Fergus used several measures to assess cyberchondria, including a scale in which people assessed such statements as, "I always want to know what the future has in store for me"; a health anxiety inventory, in which -- regardless of their actual health -- they responded to such statements as, "I spend most of my time worrying about my health"; and a scale assessing how searches for online health information affected respondents' anxiety.

Fearing the worst when it comes to health care is not new. The online glut of medical information - not all of it from reputable sources - may be more disturbing than what can be found in medical manuals or obtained directly from a doctor.

"When you look at a medical book, you might not see all the possibilities at once, but online you're presented with so many," he said.

The findings of his study are published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.