Health Anxiety and Online Health Information Seeking – Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket
Health anxiety has always been a common type of anxiety that I help people with. In these days where things like heart issues and cancer are likely to have affected someone you know, and where our media is full of warnings about symptoms and requests for donations from health charities describing their work, someone with health anxiety can find that their worries and fears are never far from the forefront of their mind.
People with health anxiety describe to me how any physical symptom can start an anxious spiral that takes over and leads to excessive anxiety and worry about their health, along with fears about the impacts that would be there if they couldn’t work or needed care, or about how their family and others would cope if they died. That health anxiety can attach to any ache or pain, can be fired off by hearing of someone else’s health condition, or can be a sense of fear of dread about what if something was to happen.
And, of course, the physical symptoms you experience from health anxiety and worry can lead to heart palpitations, aches from being tense, a tight chest and other anxious symptoms. These physical sensations then in turn add more fuel to your anxiety as you worry that these are the signs of something being seriously wrong with you. That can then lead to you feeling even more anxious, experiencing even more anxious overthinking and feeling even worse.
The excessive worry from health anxiety can be about the likelihood of possibility of illness or a negative health issue, a heightened awareness and worry about bodily sensations and a sense of catastrophising that a physical sensation (even a normal bodily sensation) is something threatening and dangerous.
The pandemic with all of it’s warnings, uncertainty, fear and information (as well as mis-information) certainly exacerbated health anxiety for many people. Particularly in the early days when everything was unclear and there were pictures of hospital beds full of sick people and daily reports of high levels of illness and death. Now, of course, there can still be worry about covid and long covid, what could happen if you got ill and a worry about any physical symptoms you may notice. And alongside this, there are the ever present risks and dread of cancer, heart disease, heart attacks and so on that for someone with health anxiety can surface and be triggered by anything health related.
And these days, someone with health anxiety is likely to head over to the internet to search out information about what they are feeling and experiencing. Now the internet can be a fantastic resource for finding out about all sorts of things, yet, as anyone who has ever done it knows, relying on ‘Dr Google’ and trying to self diagnose online can easily become problematic and counter productive.
Health Anxiety and Online Health Information
When you are struggling with health anxiety then you are likely to seek out some sort of reassurance that everything is ok. You may go and see your doctor (although equally your anxiety about possibly being told that there is something wrong with you may mean that you avoid finding out) in the hope they will tell you that all is ok. However, because of the nature of anxiety, even being told by a medical professional that there is nothing sinister going on may not be enough to stop the unwanted stream of anxious thoughts and feelings.
You may start to wonder if they’ve missed something or whether they were as thorough as needed in examining you. You may find that your mind starts to play out stories you’ve heard of people who were told by a medical professional that all was well, only to later find out that was incorrect. Your anxiety won’t allow any sense of logic to remind you how isolated and infrequently that actually happens. Those anxious thoughts and feelings simply swamp your ability to think rationally and clearly about things.
Whether or not your go to your doctor, the other main source of health information is the internet and searching online to try and understand what your symptoms may be. You may be seeking reassurance yet the descriptions of conditions are so vague and overlapping that pretty much any physical symptom can lead you down a path which suggests something serious, debilitating or fatal.
I’ve spoken before about how I once had a painful and sore knee from running and looked up the symptoms online to try and find out what was wrong with it. Pretty much every search suggested a need for surgery and months of rehabilitation before I’d even be able to walk comfortably again. That certainly freaked me out and so I went to a physio and was back running pain free within days. The internet is vague around most health things and can’t give you a personalised diagnosis, it can only suggest possibilities. Of course if that then motivates you to seek a professional opinion and help to resolve things then all to the good, yet if it just adds to fear and anxiety then it makes things even more problematic.
Because of the vagueness and inconclusive nature of internet health descriptions, with health anxiety you can find yourself searching more and more for answers whilst becoming more and more overwhelmed and fearful. And with anxiety, even if the online health information you found was to be somewhat reassuring (at least for a time) that nothing sinister was afoot, it’s probable that the health anxiety will mean soon discounting it in favour of searching more and more to try and reassure yourself further or to try and become more certain that all is ok (after all, what if there was something else going on health wise with you).
Recent research has looked at how online searches fuel health anxiety (Peng, 2022). Whilst the availability of online health information can help you to become better informed about health issues, there are also disadvantages associated with online health information searches such as low quality information that is inaccurate, incomplete or misleading. You may search online to try and feel reassured, yet instead you end up feeling overwhelmed. And you may spend a considerable amount of time and energy adding to your anxiety as you attempt to analyse, understand and make sense of the health information that you find through your searches.
The results of the research suggest that online information searches are associated with the increase in health anxiety among health information seekers, and anxious health seekers are more likely to seek medical attention.
With the massive amount of health information available online, information overload can contribute to overestimating the likelihood of illness and increased vigilance of bodily sensations. And even higher quality health information can contribute to catastrophising and may lead to more anxiety about the likely risk and severity of health issues. Conflicting information online can make it harder to evaluate things more objectively and can lead to more worry, and it is possible that you may discount more reassuring information and give more weight to information that supports your anxious beliefs and worries.
The research also found that anxious health seekers still rely on doctors for guidance and for fact checking, which is more positive than seeking to rely on the internet alone or struggling with anxious thoughts and feelings. Of course, it is only positive if you are then able to feel reassured from the objective assessment of the health professional.
Overall, it was recommended that information seekers should rely less on internet searches to alleviate anxiety, and become more aware of, self-monitor, and reduce excessive online health searching.
If you are struggling with health anxiety then it is certainly possible to take back control over your thoughts, feelings and actions. Once you are calm and in control, you will then be better able to make decisions about your thinking patterns, bodily sensations and whether you need to seek medical help.
In this information age it isn’t possible to avoid all mentions and references to health related issues. People post health updates on social media, adverts appear unexpectedly and there will be mentions of cancer, heart attacks and so on on television, radio as well as online. All of these things, along with other health stories you learn about and your own physical sensations can lead to seeking out health information online. Unfortunately the volume of health information, the inconsistent quality, catastophising and any unconscious tendency to give more weight to information that supports your concerns, can lead to more and more worry.
By learning how to manage your own health related thoughts and feelings you can seek help when you need it and feel calmer and more in control. If you do search online then you can more effectively filter, evaluate, consider and be informed by the information you find. Or you may find that there is no longer any sense of compulsion or need to go searching and searching in vain attempt to be reassured or to try and self diagnose.
As the research above recommends, “Individuals suffering from hypervigilance and extreme anxiety can try to manage their symptoms, such as focusing less on health symptoms and worries, re-evaluating worrisome thoughts and reducing excessive checking and reassurance seeking. We should not simply rely on Internet as a tool for self-diagnosis, despite a temptation to use it as such” (Peng, 2022).
And if you could use some help to achieve this and to manage your anxiety more effectively then do get in touch and lets help you take back control over your health related thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions.
To your health and happiness,
Anxiety Hypnotherapy in Ely & Newmarket
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Reference: Peng, R.X., 2022. How online searches fuel health anxiety: Investigating the link between health-related searches, health anxiety, and future intention. Computers in Human Behavior, p.107384.