Thanks to the Internet, becoming a hypochondriac is much easier than it used to be.
The easy availability of health information on the web has certainly helped countless people make educated decisions about their health and medical treatment, but it can be disastrous for people who are likely to worry. Hypochondriacs researching an illness used to have to scour books and ask doctors for information. Now a universe of information is available with a few mouse clicks.
"For hypochondriacs, the Internet has absolutely changed things for the worse," says Brian Fallon, MD, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and the co-author of Phantom Illness: Recognizing, Understanding and Overcoming Hypochondria (1996).
So far, no studies have been conducted on just how hypochondriacs use the Internet, Fallon says. But the phenomenon is common enough to have a snappy name -- "cyberchondria."
The medical condition called hypochondriasis is defined as worry over an imagined illness with exaggeration of symptoms, no matter how insignificant, that lasts for at least six months and causes significant distress. It tends to develop in the 20s or 30s, and it affects men and women equally. It sometimes comes on following the illness of a friend or family member, and it can also occur as a secondary illness to depression or generalized anxiety disorder.
Although it's often seen as harmless, sufferers know that it can shift from a quirky, neurotic character trait into a devastating obsession.
"Illness often becomes a central part of a hypochondriac's identity," says Arthur Barsky, MD, of Harvard Medical School and the author of Worried Sick: Our Troubled Quest for Wellness (1988). As a result, a hypochondriac's work and relationships suffer. And those with the condition aren't the only ones who pay the price: According to Fallon, hypochondria costs billions of dollars a year in unnecessary medical tests and treatments.
Contrary to what some skeptics think, hypochondriacs are not pretending or just trying to get attention. "They're absolutely not fakers or malingerers," says Barsky. "They really feel the distress they're talking about. It's just that their feelings don't have an obvious medical basis."
"What hypochondriacs have trouble accepting is that normal, healthy people have symptoms," says Barsky. Hypochondriacs tend to be very aware of bodily sensations that most people live with and ignore. To a hypochondriac, an upset stomach becomes a sign of cancer and a headache can only mean a brain tumor. The stress that goes along with this worry can make the symptoms even worse.