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Internet Makes Hypochondria Worse

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Web Can Be Misleading

Hypochondriacs are often not particularly careful about where they get their health information. To many sufferers, Gray's Anatomy, a half-remembered TV movie, and a harrowing health story about your hairdresser's friend's grandmother are all equally legitimate sources.

This can lead to serious trouble for hypochondriacs using the vast and unregulated web.

"A lot of the stuff on the Internet, especially on health-related bulletin boards, is pure impression and anecdote," says Barsky, "and they just don't have a lot of scientific validity."

Even the most reputable health web sites with the most accurate information can cause trouble for the hypochondriac. "Hypochondriacs tend to latch onto diseases with common or ambiguous symptoms or that are hard to diagnose," says Fallon. For example, illnesses such as HIV or lupus, and neurological disorders including multiple sclerosis can cause vague symptoms like fatigue, swollen glands, and strange physical sensations.

With symptoms as common as these, it's easy for hypochondriacs to become convinced they're sick.

Second-Guessing the Doctor

Barsky and Fallon say hypochondria often breeds suspicion and distrust between a sufferer and his or her physician. Some doctors may be too quick to dismiss the worries of hypochondriacs, and hypochondriacs are likely to ruin relationships with good physicians by second-guessing them from the start.

Hypochondriacs may "get suspicious when their doctor doesn't give them a referral or a test they ask for," says Fallon. "They can feel like they're not being listened to, and so they'll go shopping for another doctor and wind up repeating the process."

No good doctor will order an MRI every time your ears are ringing or a colonoscopy every time your stomach's upset.

"The solution is not to get tested for everything all the time," says Barsky, "since that feeling of relief doesn't last anyway." Instead, hypochondriacs need to learn to get help and change their way of thinking.

Resist the Surfing Urge

Treating hypochondria, once believed to be almost impossible to cure, has improved a lot in the last decade.

Fallon was a pioneer in using antidepressants like Prozac and Luvox to treat hypochondriacs.

Barsky has had great success in using the techniques of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy -- persuading hypochondriacs to change their responses to anxieties and wean themselves off the behaviors that get them in trouble.

For instance, Barsky says, a hypochondriac needs to resist the compulsion to self-diagnose and to seek assurance from doctors and friends. The best one can do is to get regular medical treatment from a trustworthy doctor trust and to live a healthy life.

Fallon agrees: "In a loose sense, a hypochondriac becomes almost addicted to looking up information, examining himself, and getting reassurance from other people," he says. "Checking just makes things worse."

And what about using the Internet to look up that worrisome symptom? "If it's just going to make you upset," says Barsky. "Don't do it."

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