Health Anxiety and the Internet.

For people with health anxiety the internet can be constructive or destructive, a blessing or a curse. The internet contains enormous amounts of health information, some of it reputable and some just not true. It can provide information about diseases, symptoms, treatments, research studies, testimonials from patients and names of doctors and other practitioners able and willing to help. With just a few clicks one can visit numerous websites and accumulate huge amounts of information. In my office I have a large library of books, which I hardly ever consult anymore, since there is so much current information constantly being added online.
So why would this be a problem? It seems like learning about diseases and other health and illness information would answer so many questions, inform people about the diseases they are concerned about, and generally put to rest the uncertainty and confusion that people have about their health concerns.
Many people do actually derive a great benefit from being informed as a result of searching the internet. Yet for some people, especially for people with health anxiety, the internet can make matters much worse.

There are two major concerns one should have when searching for health information. The first is whether the information is valid. Just because something is posted on the internet doesn’t mean it is true. Anyone can post health information without anyone judging if it is true or misleading. So how can someone with limited knowledge know what is true or false? The answer is to go to reputable websites put online by government agencies or hospital organizations. The National Institutes of Health (, The Mayo Clinic ( are just a few examples of reputable websites to obtain health information.

The other concern for people with health anxiety is that the internet is used to manage their anxiety with respect to the diseases or health conditions that frighten them. Typically health anxious people pay attention to body sensations or symptoms that leads them to catastrophically worry about whether they may have a life-threatening medical condition. Also, they often look only at partial information, just enough to confirm and heighten their fears. Sometimes they become so fearful they can’t continue reading a full description of the disease that frightens them. Sometimes it is useful to learn all you can about the disease you are afraid of, but at other times getting partial information while feeling terrified about a particular sensation or symptom, can generate very high levels of anxiety, and should be avoided.

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