Imagine yourself sitting on a cold, metallic, fold-up chair. One of the chair legs is off-balance and the air in the room you’re sitting in is crisp. There are other people in this room, eight of them, to be precise. All eight are perched uncomfortably on chairs that are equally as cold and metallic as your own. Everyone, you included, is seated in a circle. Everyone, you included, wear matching white robes – except for one. You squint to read this man’s nametag: ‘Hello, my name is Dr. Saneti,’ it reads. Dr. Saneti is wearing black trousers and a blue jumper. He stands up and clears his throat. “Alright everyone,” he starts, “you’re all here for the same reason.” You nervously scan the people seated around you. They look completely normal. You start to panic, and think that maybe there’s been some sort of mistake because clearly there’s nothing wrong with you, unless you’ve been diagnosed with some sort of hideous brain-degrading disease and … Dr. Saneti interrupts your train of thought with another cough. Has he got the flu? “I would like you to please raise your hand if you have ever used Google, a similar search engine, or the website known as WebMD, to conduct a self-diagnosis of your health.”

For those who aren’t aware, the medical condition hypochondriasis, more commonly called hypochondria, occurs when a person exhibits significant distress over an imagined illness. A large cohort of exaggerated, and often insignificant, symptoms usually accompany this distress. Most people have likely had their own experiences with a sore throat they assumed was tonsillitis, or a rash they feared could be the onset of leprosy, but these concerns are soon ignored and seen as a harmless, quirky, character trait.
For hypochondriacs, however, this cute neuroticism quickly becomes a dangerous obsession.

There are many people, sceptics you could say, who claim that hypochondriacs are merely pretending to be ill in order to gain attention. “That’s nonsense,” said Dr. Blake, a physician at Dunedin Hospital who was kind enough to spare ten minutes for an interview, “The thing about patients with hypochondria is that they are genuinely feeling serious distress over whatever they’re talking about.” He went on to describe that the main issue physicians have to express to their patients is that normal, completely healthy people have symptoms. “To a regular, level-headed individual, a headache could mean dehydration, or exhaustion, but to a hypochondriac, the same headache could only mean a brain tumour.”

In today’s society, in the Age of the Internet, becoming a hypochondriac is far easier than it once was. The condition, in combination with access to online information sources, has even garnered its own snazzy nickname – cyberchondria. Dr. Brian Fallon of Columbia University, a psychiatrist and leading researcher on hypochondria has said that cyberchondriacs are, “… hypochondriacs who have a strong, obsessive compulsive focus to their symptoms.”

How many times have you “genuinely thought” that you were dying after a night out on the town? How many conversations have you had with your flatmates discussing that “seriously weird” bump on your head that you’re damn sure has something to do with a blood clot or possible concussion? Have you ever found an odd-looking rash on your ribcage and feared the onset of a pigmentation-changing skin disease? If any of these situations sound even slightly familiar to you, then without a doubt you took your medical concerns to the most infamous of information sources: Dr. Google.

During a survey of 20 seemingly regular and level-headed individuals seated in Union Hall, 17 of them described how searching for basic medical information on the Internet had led to further investigation of a far more serious condition. This was an interesting discovery, as none of the 20 surveyed individuals defined themselves as having extreme health concerns, yet almost all of them had displayed cyberchondriac-like behaviour. One student spoke of a time when she had Googled how to calm an upset stomach, and ended up halfway convinced that she had pancreatic cancer. Fortunately, she didn’t.

Believe it or not, (you can try this yourself), one of the first suggestions that appears when typing “cyberchondria” into Google is, in fact, “cyberchondria symptoms.” Fitting.

“I’ve been a hypochondriac going on cyberchondriac for pretty much the entirety of my pathetically healthy life,” began Annie, a 25-year-old from Auckland. “When I was eight I discovered my auntie’s medical encyclopaedia. That’s where it all began, I think.” She discussed how the Internet is without a doubt, a hypochondriac’s best nightmare. “When I was 14 I had my first run-in with multiple sclerosis, but that turned out to be nothing more than a slight numbness caused by sleeping on my arm weirdly.” After a few minutes of light-hearted banter, things suddenly turned serious, “Honestly though, I’m dead certain that I’m experiencing an early onset of menopause. Not even joking. I’ve been having serious hot flushes and WebMD has this whole list of other symptoms and I mean ... like I don’t think I want kids, so that’s okay but, yeah.” Annie seemed at peace with her apparent condition. Are you going to get yourself checked out by a doctor? “No,” she said, “I’ve wasted so much time and money on medical tests that turned out to be unnecessary in the past, so I think I’ll just tackle this one on my own.”

From examining some of Dr. Fallon’s research on hypo/cyberchondria, it becomes evident that hypochondriacs are not necessarily all too careful about where they get their information. In the Age of the Internet, access to vast and unregulated medical information is just a few mouse-clicks away. Dr. Google will always have the answers. “For hypochondriacs, the Internet has absolutely changed things for the worse,” says Dr. Fallon.

According to Annie, there are few things in life she finds more enticing than new symptoms. “There’s nothing quite like watching a Grey’s Anatomy episode and finding out that the weird twitch I’ve been experiencing in my knee could be a sign that one of my vital organs is about to expire.” To most people, TV shows and stories told by your hairdresser about her sister’s best friend’s niece belong in the realm of fiction, but to hypochondriacs, such information is deemed somewhat reliable.

After tracking down another known hypochondriac, the stories he told me were eerily similar to those told by Annie. Thomas, a 22-year-old from Christchurch, discussed with enthusiasm the time when he was convinced that he was suffering from two terminal illnesses at the same time. “I’d had this horrible pain in my belly region for a few days, and all signs pointed to stomach cancer. I have a family history of cancer, so it was pretty scary. A few days after that, I developed a funny little twitch in my elbow that was dead-on with motor neuron disease.” He makes it clear that although he can laugh about it now, the few weeks he felt this way were absolutely terrifying. “I was told by my doctor that if researching my symptoms is just going to make me upset, I should just try not to do it.” Excellent advice, mystery doctor from Christchurch. Have you ever worried about an illness that you really just couldn’t possibly have? Thomas looked down, “Yeah, well, it’s a bit embarrassing, but there was this one time I had a fever and I was hot and cold and hot and all the symptoms matched up but … I would say that I thought about it for a lot longer than any male in his 20s ever should.” The elusive “it,” Thomas referred to was, of course, menopause.

The arrival of the Internet has completely revolutionised the collection and distribution of healthcare-related information. This has changed the traditional doctor-patient relationship significantly. Traditionally speaking, it has always been that the doctor is the one who has all the knowledge regarding a patient’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment, but in this information-rich era, patients seek to inform themselves. Where there are some physicians who dislike this pattern due to the often-incorrect and unreliable information that patients ingest, there are others who have found that smarter patients are better patients. Groups of medical professionals of the latter kind find more often than not that patients who use the Internet to research their health before coming to consultations ask more informed questions, and are more likely to comply with recommended treatments.

Hypochondria and cyberchondria are both dangerous and distress-causing conditions, but the penultimate of imagined and delusional diseases is Morgellons. Morgellons is a condition wherein sufferers are under the paranoid belief that their bodies are infested with disease-causing agents such as insects, parasites, or fibres under their skin, when in reality no such things are present. Morgellons patients tend to self-diagnose using information available on the Internet, particularly forums and threads filled with the opinions and experiences of other sufferers. Although there is undeniable proof that people with Morgellons are not suffering from an infestation of disease-causing agents, they do exhibit a number of skin-related symptoms such as biting and stinging sensations, or rashes and sores from patients’ own scratching and rubbing habits. It is a controversial disease, treated with extreme caution by professional psychiatrists, psychologists, and even the mainstream media. One of the strangest things about Morgellons is that it seems very few people can read about or hear about the disease without feeling itchy themselves, which certainly tells you something about people and their apparent need to always assume the worst.

It was at a time when people were already starting to show a lot more interest in public health matters when the Internet first appeared. As general and scientific education increased worldwide, so did public interest in health issues. All around the globe, televised debates on topics involving public health concerns, magazines devoted to fitness and general well-being along with “doctor” columns in newspapers became the norm. If we were to go back 50 years ago, it was generally considered taboo to discuss personal health problems with anyone besides your doctor, but those beliefs began to fade away quickly with the arrival of the Internet.

For most regular, level-headed people, the Internet and its endless troves of information is seen more as a helpful hint than an unquestionable truth when it comes to understanding medical conditions. But for hypochondriacs, seeking information online can lead to serious anxiety.

With the power of the Internet, nearly anything can be purchased online: your groceries; your clothes; and even your prescription medication – no prescription necessary. The sale of medication online raises many concerns around product safety and control. When a person goes to a consultation with their physician and is prescribed a medication, they will be informed of any potential side effects and dangers associated with taking each specific treatment. The same does not occur over the Internet. People can purchase the most dangerous of mind-altering drugs and not be aware of the damage they may cause. For severe hypochondriacs who feel as though a physician will not take their concerns seriously, online acquirement can often be seen as their only option. This behaviour will more often than not do far more harm than it will good.

So, you’ve gone out to dinner with friends, gorged yourself on a huge meal, and now you’re experiencing terrible cramping pains in your chest. You ask Dr. Google what he thinks and the first thing that springs to his mind is a heart attack. You check WebMD and there are other symptoms of heart attacks that match your own. Anxiety is building; you have so much to live for, you’re so young and now it’s all over and … no. You’re not having a heart attack, you’re experiencing the phenomenon known as cyberchondria. Stop it.

In the Age of the Internet, it comes as no surprise that the World Wide Web will continue to play a large role in the distribution of health problems. Hypochondriacs and cyberchondriacs alike will always demand more and more information about all manner of medical conditions, and where physicians don’t have the answers, Dr. Google does. However, as the mysterious doctor from Christchurch told Thomas when he nearly died from a double-disease fiasco, if researching your illnesses and ailments is just going to make you upset – don’t do it.

There you are, sitting on that now-slightly-warmer metallic fold-up chair, looking up at Dr. Saneti. He looks around the circle kindly, and raises his own hand. “I once caught a splinter under my fingernail, and Dr. Google told me I would contract a fungal disease. But let me tell you all now, I didn’t.” You look down at your hands, and thinking back to high school when you told your mother that you’d most definitely contracted bacterial meningitis, you raised your hand. “Well done,” says Dr. Saneti, “Everything will be okay.”
This article first appeared in Issue 18, 2014.
Posted 9:43pm Sunday 3rd August 2014 by Lydia Adams.