What is Cyberchondria?

I have been aware of Cyberchrondria for many years. I always called it Google-itis. It is when the patient or the client has become so well informed about their condition that they often know more about it than their doctor or therapist. Sometimes, what they think is information can be ‘mis-information’ as the sources of their information maybe dubious and come from any site or chat room on the internet.

According to Laura Donnelly, health editor (UK) Daily Telegraph,

‘Cyberchondria” is fuelling an epidemic of health anxiety, with one in five NHS appointments taken up by hyperchondriacs and those with irrational fears, experts have warned.’

Cyberchrondia is the modern digital equivalent of hyperchondria that is a fear of illness often morbidly so. Usually seen as delusional, often accompanied by the hysterical development of physical symptoms that are dismissed by the doctor or therapist. Sadly I see, on a regular basis, those with genuine symptoms and concerns ignored by their physician, who suspect them of hyperchondria, only to go on and develop full blown and, sometimes, fatal disease.

If the statistics are true and that twenty percent of NHS time is wasted, the money spent looking after people who are not ill we have a problem…. But, just hold on a minute, maybe we have this wrong and we do have a problem, just not the one that we think we have.

What takes these people to the doctor in the first place?
Why would someone invest so much of their time and energy in worrying about being ill? Ok, so maybe they do not have a physical medical issue but they certainly do have a issue. It is called anxiety.

In my discipline of psychotherapy we recognise that around 60% of those visiting a general practitioner/physician have an anxiety issues rather than a physical problem. We also know that when patients do have a genuine physical issue it is often exacerbated through their anxiety and concerns.

This does not mean that these people are wasting NHS time because they do not have a issues, they very much do have an issue it is called ‘Health Anxiety’.

Health Anxiety
All forms of anxiety happen when the consciousness of the individual is projected into their future. They are not living in their present. Fear of flying, is not fear of flying it is fear of crashing, fear of heights is fear of falling and so on.

You need a good imagination
Any anxiety can be defined as the person projecting into the future and imagining things that may never happen and then living those fears in the present as though they are actually happening right now. The better the person imagination the more intense their anxiety. You cannot be anxious without a good imagination. The person with health anxiety is using their imagination to assume and fear the worst and living those fears in the present as if they are true.

Often phobias and anxiety fears run side by side. So that health anxiety can lead to many phobic reactions and changes in behaviour to avoid a supposed or suspected illness or infection. Because of this health anxiety is often accompanied by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the obsessive recitation of actions or thoughts. In reality the need to visit and revisit the internet to Google symptoms and diseases is also a form of OCD.

Symptom substitution
The problem for these people is not that it is ‘health anxiety’ it is simply that they have ‘anxiety’ disorder. When someone has learned the habit of anxiety, living a supposed future in the present, the anxiety will attach itself to whatever is the latest focus of their attention. So, now it just happens to be health. If we resolve this obsession with health the anxiety will simply attach itself to something else. So, now we have fear of flying followed by fear of nuclear war, followed by fear of losing a job, followed fear of becoming homeless. The attachments made by anxiety can go anywhere on an endless list of possibilities.

This is a real problem
This is not a fantasy. For the sufferer it is very real. It is not something where you can tell the person to pull themselves together and just stop worrying. From my experience as a therapist, and from what I read, anxiety is a developing and increasing problem. We can see from these statistics from the NHS and from the information form the office of national statistics (ONS) that amount of hours and days lost to sickness absence due to anxiety is a growing problem. So, if we are to solve the problem the question is why is it developing and what can we do about it?

Life style changes
The person that was, just a few generations ago, driving a horse and cart is now flying a jumbo jet. The world has changed, we have not. In the preindustrial, pre-urban society we ate what we could grow, foods that were in season and our expectations were less. With industrialisation and production comes choice and we now know that choice is stressful. Research shows us that if, when we are in the supermarket, we have a choice of one hundred different types of cheese, this in itself creates stress for us. If the choice is limited to less that ten types of cheese the stress is much less. Think of the level of choices that we all have in all parts of our life. More choice, more decision making, more opportunity to get it wrong, the more stress.

From the moment you wake to the moment that you arrive at work or school you will have processed more information than your great grandparents would have processed in several months. Life and news is instantaneous. Most of us are contumely connected. WE cannot escape and simply relax.

With improved living standards, nutrition and medication has come a longer life. In the UK we are looking at female death age in the mid nineties and men in the late eighties. In one sense with more time has come more anxiety. Also with longer life has come more disease. Illnesses that a few generations ago people would simply not have lived long enough to get have now become common place. We probably all know someone who has had cancer. We are now told that 50% of us will get cancer. However, we also told that the majority of us will survive it. The message that we focus on will depend on our anxiety. Those with anxiety disorder are likely to hear “50% of us will get cancer”. Those without anxiety disorder are likely to hear “most of us will survive it”. There are other aspect of potential anxiety related to longevity such as pensions, financial support and care homes etc.

Along with increased life has come increased expectation. Expectation of wealth and consumerism, an expectation of things, of stuff. Many are no longer prepared to save before they purchase they rely on credit. Just like anxiety, credit gives us a way to experience the potential future in the present. From car loans and mortgages to credit cards and store cards we live the future in the present. It is then that we experience the pressure, the anxiety of having to pay it all off. The average UK household currently has about £12,887.00 of unsecured credit, that is before mortgages and car loans. (ONS)

The development of expectation is fuelled by the media, advertising and marketing. It serves to convince us that we need things that we have never known about before. The new phone that appears every eighteen months, the lasted model of car, fashion, bags, shoes and consumables. For many fashion equals stress as we are convinced of those things that we just must have.

Alongside media is the news that is broadcast at us every hour of the day. News rarely or never tells us anything that is good, rather it fires up the fears and anxieties of the listeners. News is never balanced. News is about all that is bad and all the bad that will happen. It feeds our fear and anxiety, it creates anxiety. The news feeds about all the immigrants that would be wrecking Britain if we did not leave Europe, the madness of North Korea and Donald Trump. It really is, pick your fear and the news media will run with it and feed it until it fizzles out. They will be onto the next great fear. I detect a fear change. The fear of Europe appears to be changing slowly into a fear of Brexit. Whatever will be next, perhaps Facebook will tell us?

That leads us into the internet and Google that does everything from misdiagnosing our symptoms, to making us envious of those wonderful lives that we see on Facebook and Instagram, to wanting products from Amazon and other online markets.

But, we must not forget our need for the devices that allow us to play with the internet. Phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, smart TVs. I wonder what device you are using to read this on? As I write the news feeds are telling me about the impending iOS 11 and the new iPhone that is rumoured to cost $1000.00.

Strangely the word ‘chondria’ comes from the Greek meaning cartilage. So hyper would infer an over focussing on the inner tissues hence the medical connection. If we take chondria, in a modern sense to mean “what we focus upon” Cyberchondria makes sense.

Take care and be happy and whatever your individual chondria try and make it a positive one.

Sean x