You Focus on the Worst Case Scenario
Your head hurts so you Google your symptoms. Instead of clicking on the search result that says it could be a migraine, you hone in on the words: “brain tumor,” “cancer” and “cerebral hemorrhage.”
“Patients coming in with headaches they’re convinced are brain tumor is extremely common. Or they’ll research symptoms that could be two different things and jump to the most crippling syndrome, even if it’s clear they don’t have it,” says Rahul K. Khare, MD, ER physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant professor at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Khare says one key symptom of Cyberchondria is that you easily believe you have — or could have — these rare disorders without taking into consideration the risk factors, prevalence and incidence of the disease or syndrome.
You Surf for Vague Symptoms
When symptom surfing, you concentrate on hard-to-diagnose, vague symptoms, such as fatigue, general muscle aches, headaches and strange physical sensations.
“We see patients who have done Internet searches on muscle aches, fatigue, pain and are convinced they have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” says Khare.
“Cyberchondriacs are ambivalent about finding out they have an illness,” says Carole Lieberman, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets. “On one hand, they’re terribly fearful of being sick and dying, but on the other hand, they are looking for something to validate symptoms to get attention and sympathy.”
So vague symptoms, such as fatigue or aches, provide the chance to vacillate between benign and terminal diagnoses, depending on how sorry you want to feel for yourself at that moment.
Your “Favorites” are Filled with Medical Search Results
Instead of links to recipes, yoga poses, celebrity gossip or dream vacations, your favorites are littered with links to symptom checkers, dire disease symptoms and other medical listings.Thanks to those saved searches, links and symptom checkers in your favorites, you can draw the line from headache to fatal brain tumor with just two clicks of your mouse.
You Can’t Remember the Last Symptom You or Your Family Experienced That You Didn’t Research Online
Instinct, says Michael Nuccitelli Psy.D., C.F.C., a licensed psychologist in Brewster, NY, is often the devil’s advocate when it comes to symptom surfing.
You get the feeling that something is wrong and keep searching to prove your instinct right – because, well, when is it ever wrong?
Women are particularly susceptible because they’re “typically the ones to keep track of their family’s health so they have to stay current of medical and health issues for their children and family,” he says. The more “informed” they think they are, the more this instinct rears its ugly head.
You Ask Facebook Friends About Fevers, Rashes and Other Symptoms
Lieberman says white coat syndrome — the fear of being diagnosed with a previously unknown condition or being told you have to change unhealthy behavior (smoking, drinking and eating) — sometimes make Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking sites a more attractive option for researching symptoms.
But doctors caution you have to take information about symptoms learned on these social media sites with a grain of salt.
“One person’s experience might not be the same as someone else’s,” says Michael Abrahams, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist in New York City and clinical assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine.
To cure your Cyberchondria, avoid sites where people can share symptom information based on their own lay knowledge of medical conditions, Abrahams says. “Sometimes it’s good to hear from another person what their experience has been for emotional support, however, this is not a good diagnostic tool.”
You’ve Gone Through a Lot of Printer Paper
Have you ever taken reams of paper about a disease you think you might have to your doctor’s office? A word of warning: once you’ve crossed the line from informed patient to informing the doctor, you’ve come down with Cyberchondria.
“When it comes to skin cancers like melanoma, I understand where the patients are coming from. They compare their spots to pictures they find on the Internet and then they come to see me,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
And then there are the patients who take it to another level.
“When someone comes in to the office with a stack of printed out reports on rare skin diseases, I prepare myself. Sometimes, a horse is just a horse and not a zebra, but not all patients want to hear that. Those are usually challenging encounters,” says Zeichner.
You Don’t Let Up
Every search result confirms that it’s just a migraine, but you’re not convinced.
“One tip off that a person has Cyberchondria is when they don’t believe the search results that say they’re ok, or don’t have the serious disease,” says Leiberman. “So they keep researching and surfing ‘just to make sure’ or to reassure themselves that there’s a chance they’re ok.”
Your Pulse Skyrockets When You Symptom Surf
Researching your health often leads to anxiety, panic or a little bit of both because you frequently link common symptoms to serious illnesses.
“They look up their symptoms and read that they should be seen immediately. And even though most people don’t have the disease or syndrome; they feel anxious worrying they do,” says Khare.
Then, since the doctor is not available right that second, a cyberchondriac hyperventilates some more over the idea of being a ticking time bomb. As the cycle continues, the feelings of anxiety escalate!
You Feel Worse After You Get Off the Computer
After searching for information on your symptoms, you feel worse, not better. In fact, your symptoms may even become more dramatic or intense.
“This is the result of wanting to feel in control of your body,” says Leiberman.
She says that even if you want to feel better, your brain could play tricks on you and exaggerate the symptoms or their severity as a way of regaining control. It’s all in your head!
It’s Taking Over Your Life
Do you find yourself spending more time symptom-surfing than answering emails or making time for the people you love?
“Cyberchondriacs can spend hours surfing the web, since the number of sites and social media outlets that discuss symptoms are endless. This allows the Cyberchondriac to avoid other activities in her life, such as work, dating or doing the dishes. After all, how can she be expected to engage in such mundane activities when she may be dying?” says Lieberman.