Googling your health: Why some suffer more anxiety

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Published October 15, 2013

| LiveScience

For people who don't like uncertainty, searching for medical information online could set them on a downward spiral. As they pore through web sites looking for answers and along the way, finding out all the possible ways things could go wrong in the body they become increasingly more anxious, according to a new study.

Many people search the Internet for medical information. But for some people, such searching is linked with increased anxiety, a phenomenon researchers call cyberchondria, the online version of hypochondria.

For cyberchondriacs, fear of uncertainty could make matters even worse, according to the study published online Aug. 31 in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

"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 study researcher Thomas Fergus, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. [13 Oddest Medical Cases]

In the study, Fergus looked at 512 healthy people, and assessed their tolerance for uncertainty, as well as how online searches for medical information affected their anxiety. Study participants answered statements such as "I always want to know what the future has in store for me," and "I spend most of my time worrying about my health."

The results showed the more intolerance for uncertainty that a person had, the more likely that searching online for medical information brought them anxiety.

"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 in a statement.

Distress about having a disease may not end there. Some people may go even further, worrying about potential medical bills, disability and job loss, which can lead to even more Internet searching, doctor visits and stress, Fergus said.

Reading the seemingly infinite amount of information on the Internet could be risky for people who have health anxiety. Some medical information online is from questionable sources, and could be more disturbing than the information people obtain from medical manuals or from a doctor, Fergus said.

"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.

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