Approximately eight out of 10 Americans search for medical information on the internet, which for the occasional cramp isn't a bad thing — but if you're someone who's uncomfortable with uncertainty, not only will your symptoms worsen as you search, you'll probably cause yourself a full-blown nervous breakdown (you know, since Dr. House doesn't exist when you need him most).
A few Christmases ago, my aunt came for a visit. Like me, she’s a smorgasbord of emotional baggage, and I don’t know whether it was the drinks or… OK, it was probably the drinks, but one minute we’re chit-chatting about this and that, and the next we’re scavenging the internet for what’s wrong with us. Two bottles of wine later, we self-diagnosed ourselves with generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder and about seven different things that ended in "–phobia."
The one thing we didn’t diagnose ourselves with? Alcohol poisoning. Go figure.
When it comes to cyberchondria (or hypochondria 2.0), here’s what I know: Your obsession with finding new studies to self-diagnose with is just as unhealthy as the studies say you are. In fact, you’re only about four websites away from declaring yourself terminal and turning into a real-life Bob Wiley.
Here’s how to break the cycle before you feel the urge to jump off a bridge:
Anybody can build a website, so it’s important to only freak yourself out over the best ones: Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Mercy Medical Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are legitimate and reliable sources of information. (And yes, I had these websites bookmarked before I became a health writer.)
In other words, when you decide to surf the internet on your lunch break, don’t start looking up the latest medical developments or gross pictures that will destroy your appetite.
Use the internet proactively. If you look up a vague symptom that could be related to anything, you’ll end up lost in the black hole that is self-diagnosis and won't leave your home for days. Don’t look up "fatigue," look up "how to alleviate fatigue." If you have a cough that’s as clingy as your last boyfriend, look up home remedies to soothe your throat.
When you’re feeling verklempt over a symptom that’s persisting, use a reliable symptom checker to decide whether or not to go to the doctor — for example, Free MD is run by the National Library of Medicine. You need to decide honestly (and rationally) whether your symptoms are legitimate or not.
Your symptoms won’t have the same cause someone else’s symptoms. Plus, you might only think you’re having symptoms. If you go to a random message board with your concerns, people are going to reply with horrific diagnoses that will leave you under your bed clutching a blankie.
Slowly cut back on your medical research. If you find yourself researching every ache and pain, set a time limit. Once the alarm goes off, cut yourself off. Keep making the time limit shorter and shorter until you have your life back.
If you’re feeling brave, stop going to medical sites altogether. Instead, only research a diagnosis after actually receiving one from your doctor… wait, did the Jaws theme just start playing?
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