(People, The (England) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Everyone gets the odd ache and pain now and again, but if you constantly turn to the internet for a diagnosis you could actually be suffering from a type of mental illness - cyberchondria.
This new phenomenon is growing as more people call on the web for information. The more they search, the higher their anxiety becomes as they imagine their symptoms are a sign of something serious.
Earlier this month the health watchdog The Information Standard reported that four in 10 people admitted they have put off going to their GP - and more than half of those say they turned to the web instead.
Almost one in six found they had a 'lucky escape' after they finally booked an appointment and were properly diagnosed. While 37 per cent of men delayed a visit to the GP, it was 43 per cent of women. Women were also more likely to turn to the internet for health information. So why are more and more of us becoming cyberchondriacs?
Counsellor and therapist Hilda Burke believes the cause can be extremely deep rooted. She says, 'One factor is somatisation (to do with the body) of a psychological problem. That is when a person feels something emotionally and wishes to make it physical. Another reason may be the person wants to feel part of something, despite the fact that the common denominator might be perceived as negative, such as an illness.'
Hypochondria is nothing new. Before we had widespread access to the internet there were home medical books to get people in a panic. Now we can go online the condition has become much more pervasive.
A recent study by Dr Thomas Fergus, of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has shown that fearing a catastrophic disease or injury, unfounded or not, can trigger worries about disability, job loss and potential medical bills.
These can lead to even more searching of the internet, obsessing, visits to doctors, unnecessary medical tests and distress.
The reality is excessive online searching can make us more ill.
So why do people do this to themselves? Hilda says, 'For the same reason people sometimes fantasise about their funerals or how they might die. It's human nature. We are drawn to imagining the worst possible thing that could happen to us as much as to the best that could happen to us. Reality lies somewhere in the middle but our imaginings are drawn to the extremes.'
Finding out the worst-case scenario is easy. Type in a few mild symptoms and in an instant you read your days are numbered.
Hilda says, 'The nature of such websites is they have links to other related pages or ads about treating the symptoms. You may go on to briefly check something out but then you see something else you might also think you're suffering from or are prone to and then that triggers another search and so on.'
One sufferer, Emily, 32, found herself becoming obsessed with internet symptom searching. She says, 'Any tiny ache or pain has me reaching for my phone. I'm on it constantly, on the train, at work, in the pub. First I type in my symptom, such as feeling bloated all of the time and I'd search through the pages and pages of results. Crazily I'd ignore the less serious more likely outcomes and focus on the worst ones. If my initial search didn't bring up any serious illnesses I'd search again but this time I'd put in 'feeling bloated all the time cancer' which was sure to satisfy my inner demons.'
A poll carried out by 3 Monkeys Communications found the web was the number one choice for medical information. Six out of 10 people aged 18 to 24 preferred the internet over visiting their GP.
This trend is not only happening among the younger generation. More than a quarter of 35 to 44-year-olds also said websites and forums are the most important channels for sourcing facts about health.
Across the country, two-thirds of Brits now use digital and social channels to find out about medical matters.
Emily says, 'I know I'm a cyberchondriac. It's like a drug. The more you do it the more addicted you become. It's the fear of the unknown and the desire to be in control. Ironically, in the end it's the addiction that has ended up controlling me.'
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