Serving the community since 1999

Specializing in OCD and related conditions

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Cyberchondria: Health Anxiety in the 21st Century

    

Lately, the OCD Center seems to be getting more and more calls from people suffering with Hypochondria, also known as Health Anxiety.  Many in the public, as well as many physicians, don’t take Hypochondria very seriously.  Their attitude is often that this is not a “real” problem, and that people with Health Anxiety are simply being neurotic or seeking attention.  Numerous physicians I have spoken to have complained that patients with Hypochondria use a dramatically disproportionate share of doctors’ limited time.

My experience treating many clients with Health Anxiety over the years is that individuals with these concerns are suffering greatly.  To put it simply, imagine believing, on a daily basis, that you are dying of a horrible illness or disease.

Why are we seeing such a marked increase in calls from people seeking help for Hypochondria?  I posit that the surge in Hypochondria is a function of two main factors:

  • Media Overload – We are inundated daily with media reports about diseases.  When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 60’s and 70’s, my family had access to a total of eight television channels, all of which went off the air every day around midnight.  And this was in Chicago, not some rural outback.  Today we have literally hundreds of broadcast and cable channels, all of which run 24 hours a day.  Amongst those are numerous cable news channels.  Simply put, we have way more information than was available a mere thirty years ago.
  • The Internet and Cyberchondria – In addition to the massive increase in broadcast and cable media outlets, the past fifteen years has seen an explosion in usage of the internet.  This means more and faster exposure to news about illnesses and diseases.  While this wonderful technology certainly has its benefits in terms of disseminating health information, there is also is a dark side that is sometimes called Cyberchondria.  Virtually every client we have treated with Hypochondria over the past ten years reports using the internet to search for information regarding illnesses.  And by search, I mean for hours and hours a day.  Every day.  The problem with this is two-fold.  First, their searching is essentially a compulsion that reinforces the idea that they are desperately ill.  Rather than providing the reassurance that they are not ill, their searching actually results in an increase in their concerns about illness.  Second, much of the information they find on the web is of dubious value.  Anybody can post anything on the internet, and there is no shortage of health information that is flat out wrong.

Since it highly unlikely that we are going to see a drastic reduction in internet usage or in the number of media outlets available to us, it is imperative that those with health anxiety learn to resist the urge to compulsively use these information sources.  Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been found by research studies to be the fastest and most effective means of learning how to manage Health Anxiety.  For those suffering with Hypochondria, CBT offers concrete solutions for a vexing problem.  And as for the naysayers who continue to believe that Hypochondria is a not a “real” problem, consider the possibility that, while the suffering of others may not always make sense to you, that doesn’t mean the suffering in not real.

•Tom Corboy, MFT, is the director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles, a private, outpatient clinic specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related conditions.  In addition to individual therapy, the center offers six weekly therapy groups, as well as online therapy, telephone therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment.  To contact the OCD Center of Los Angeles, click here.

8 Comments

  • Hypochondria is for the mind what pain is for the body; it is a signal that something may not be right so need attention. Thanks God the media is letting people to know how harmful is for the brain some of the technologies, medications, vaccines, food, etc, available out there. That produces anxiety on those with health consciousness. Unfortunately anxiety is harmful itself and generates the brain energy imbalances called hypochondria. 90% of us have brain energy imbalances due to the explosion of the technology, contamination of the environment and medications. We have to live with it and accept that we need to have brain balance training as we need to go to the dentist.

    Reply
    • Ros,

      Thank you for your comment.

      While it may be possible that some symptoms experienced in Hypochondria could be a reaction to medications, vaccines, etc., my clinical experience over 15 years has been that none of the clients I have treated with Hypochondria have had any of the diseases they fear. I believe Hypochondria is best conceptualized as a sub-type of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Recent research studies have shown that the most effective treatment for Hypochondria is Cognitive Behavioral therapy (CBT), similar to the approach used to treat OCD.

      Reply
  • My boyfriend has recently started displaying signs of cyberchondria… following the Japan earthquake attacks he had a panic attack and fled our home. Since then he has been highly concerned about symptoms he thinks derive from radiation poisoning and/or heavy metal toxins (he is also worried about corexit) and has been taking many herbal supplements and detox agents (clay, charcoal, kelp, vitamins, etc)that he reads about online. He is resistant to the idea of seeing a doctor about these things, unfortunately. I am wondering what sorts of things family members can say and do to help assuage worries and decrease some of these activities without making the person angry or defensive… if there is any way to do so.

    Reply
    • Hi Jane,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Unfortunately, there is no simple thing to say to your partner that will alleviate his anxiety. And if he is unwilling to seek treatment, there is not much you can do. I suggest you contact a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for anxiety disorders in order to discuss treatment for yourself to help you learn how to best cope with his anxiety. Good luck.

      Reply
  • I suffer from this and just want to know if you are able to be ever fully cured from it?

    Reply
    • Amy,

      The goal of treatment is not a “cure”, but rather learning to more appropriately and effectively respond to health concerns. After all, everybody worries about their health to some extent, and it is reasonable to pay attention to one’s health. I encourage you to seek treatment with a therapist who specializes in treating Health Anxiety.

      Reply
  • Both my sister and my father may suffer from this. They are constantly looking up health information to assist me in looking for a “cure” for my own disabilities – which I appreciate when I am perfectly fine with the treatment that I am receiving. In my sister in particular, some of my health issues seems to create a major fear for her and she barely interacts with me when I am around. I know that I don’t have control over my chronic medical issues, but since they are not contagious in any way, I don’t understand where her fear is coming from. I want to help her get over her fear, but I’m not sure how. How can I help her?

    Reply
    • Veronica,

      You cannot help your sister (or your father). If your sister wants help to get over this fear (which is not at all clear based on your comment), then she will need to seek the assistance of a therapist. Her anxiety is her responsibility, not yours.

      Reply

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