Cyberchondria, The Health Anxiety Fueled By The Internet, Is Clearly A Huge Problem
The Debrief: We all know that researching symptoms online isn’t always the best course of action, but when Dr Google provides answers to physical ailments that in reality, might be psychological, how can we be expected *not* to believe the search results and make a b-line for the closest hospital?
My left foot was going numb again. I wasn’t in pain, and it wasn’t the first time I’d experienced the sensation, so the little part of my brain that was still operating logically tried to tell me to chill. But the weird tingling pins and needles feeling felt like it was spreading up my leg, driving me deeper into a very specific type of panic that had suddenly become quite routine.
Whenever chest pain was the symptom at play, my boyfriend at the time knew to keep me as far away from search engines as possible. A history of heart palpitations, debilitating fear of hospitals and a misplaced mistrust for anything remotely medical related had taught us the hard way that researching ailments myself really wasn’t good for anybody. But this numb left limb thing was new. And it was fucking terrifying. So, I Googled it. I definitely shouldn’t have Googled it.
As you might expect, ‘YOU ARE HAVING A STROKE’ and ‘THIS IS IT, THIS IS THE END’ is all I took away from the search results that flashed up on my phone. The same conversation I’d been having with myself for a number of years, once again replayed itself in my head: ‘What is going on with my body? What have I broken? This is physical, I can feel something going on and it’s wrong. There must be something wrong’. The vision in my right eye was going blurry. My left hand didn’t feel like it was working properly. My boyfriend was looking at me with more concern than he usually did when I got to that state, so I called the NHS non-emergency line (because dialling 999 to deal with what we both assumed was a mini-stroke of sorts was even more terrifying than the experience itself) and we were told to make our way to the nearest Outpatients department.
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It’s far easier to rationalise a medical issue if it’s got a physical manifestation. There being something wrong with my heart, my circulation, my neurological system made way more sense than an anxiety attack. And when throwing any ailment at Google is guaranteed to give you some sort of rationalisation that yes, go to A&E otherwise you’ll probably die, it’s no wonder that the number of people suffering from health anxiety and repeatedly requesting tests, appointments and examinations, is putting a strain on the NHS.
‘Cyberchondria’ is a term that refers to the psychological condition caused by obsessively looking up symptoms on the web. The Guardian reported that a study by the National Institute for Health Research found that the NHS could save more than £420m a year if they offered treatment for health anxiety and ‘cyberchondria’. The whole dilemma only speaks to the fact that despite feeling like we’ve come leaps and bounds in opening up conversations around mental health to normalise really common conditions, there is still a huge stigma around things like anxiety, and that in itself seems to be able to manifest psychologically on a personal level too. Mental health still isn’t as equally referred to as a cause for illness as the physical and more easily tangible medical conditions.
I had no idea until years of appointments and worrying had already passed, that my health was a separate trigger for my anxiety all on its own, let alone the fact that this anxiety can result in physical symptoms too. Every time I reluctantly went to a GP with a concern, only to be told that there was nothing wrong, only convinced me that I was going crazy which slowly made it harder to trust what I was feeling to the extent that quite often I’d just disregard certain aches and pains which at times, were things that really needed medical attention.
And of course, I’m only one example but it’s an experience that’s shared by so many of us. While we know that one in six adults have a common mental health issue, it’s also widely understood that many anxiety disorders go unrecognised or undiagnosed. A 2014 publication by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) on the need for a quality standard for the identification and management of anxiety disorders said that while most diagnosed are treated in primary care (first contact GPs and nurses) the recognition of anxiety disorders is ‘poor and only a small minority of people experiencing anxiety disorders ever receive treatment’.
Now, the team behind the cyberchondria study are calling for NICE to produce guidelines on managing an increase in recognition of health anxiety. The researchers estimate that one in five people going to hospital outpatients’ appointments suffers from health anxiety, even though only one in 10 are ever actually diagnosed. ‘By explaining health anxiety, it makes a difference to the symptoms and has an impact on patients’ behaviour’, said Peter Tyrer, professor of community psychiatry at Imperial College London.
I can't say that knowing that my weird left limb thing was provoked by my anxiety made it stop straight away. But being helped to understand what you are (or are not going through) and why, whether it's a mental or physical concern, is so crucial to everyone's wellbeing. It's frustrating because the mental health side of things clearly isn't acknowledged as it needs to be just yet, and that's reflected on a personal level, in medical practice and of course, when Google tells you that your two-hour headache means you're going to die. But we'll get there. We just need wider support in acknowledging things like health anxiety, which can often be just as straight forward to treat as the physical thing your head is telling you is happening.
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