I’ll be the first to admit: I love “Doctor Google.” For better or worse, as a very anxious person with health anxiety, I’m constantly Googling my symptoms — both mental and physical. Why, sometimes I’ve believed I’ve had as many as six impossible health conditions before breakfast (that’s how that Alice in Wonderland quote goes, right?)
I’ll also be the first to admit that this behavior is not ideal. Engaging in this activity isn’t healthy. It doesn’t make me feel better. It probably doesn’t make anyone else who’s doing it feel much better, either.
Don’t worry though, I’m actively working on this in therapy — trying to challenge my thoughts and urges to Google — and hopefully becoming less reliant on good ol’ WebMD.
But why exactly is this behavior so dangerous (especially when it comes to mental health conditions) and how can we stop it?
Why Mental Health Self-Diagnosis is Dangerous
One of the major problems with online self-diagnosis is that it may prevent you from seeking actual help. For example, someone who diagnoses themselves with an anxiety disorder based on information from a few web pages may try to seek out Xanax on the “black market” to solve their problem, rather than turning to an actual mental health professional to address it. Also, many mental health conditions are not black and white. Only a professional knows what medication could safely help your unique case.
“Given the complexity in many diagnoses along with misinformation on the internet, someone can simply look up a few keywords and think they have a mental health diagnosis that may not be accurate,” says Talkspace provider Jill E. Daino, LCSW. “When someone clicks link after link about symptoms related to mental health it can quickly spiral into a vast array of either first person experiences, or unreliable sources, which can lead to more confusion.”
We all have to remember that we’re not mental health professionals or doctors. You shouldn’t be diagnosing yourselves, or even worse, treating ourselves when you don’t even know what’s actually going on. Mental health conditions need professional attention, whether it’s in the form of therapy, medication, or both. Also, you should never try to buy psych meds on the street or online — the only safe way to get medication is through a pharmacy.
“Not only could an individual not begin to pursue appropriate care, but they could be overly frightened by what they read or, conversely, not seek help if they read something that says it is nothing to worry about,” says Daino. Let’s leave diagnosing to the pros!
While hypochondriacs (people with health anxiety who often believe that they have something seriously wrong with them) are most likely to be Googling their symptoms, their mental health is probably most as risk when searching for symptoms and self-diagnosing.
All this Googling can cause your thoughts to spiral into catastrophic thinking, worst case scenarios, and a vicious cycle of anxiety. Once you’re in the cycle, it can really be hard to stop. Even though you might originally find it soothing to look into your symptoms and find “answers,” it can backfire and make you more scared — maybe unnecessarily.
“Given that people who struggle with hypochondria and/or health anxiety can read about a medical or mental health condition and quickly spiral into thinking they have those symptoms or condition, going to the internet for information will dramatically contribute to an increase in their symptoms,” says Daino.
Remember that many mental health and physical health conditions have overlapping symptoms. And as mentioned earlier, mental health conditions especially are not black and white. Reading about symptoms that are more general than specific can easily lead someone to believe they have a particular mental health condition.
“With the overwhelming amount of information available at our fingertips for someone who struggles with hypochondria or health anxiety to google something they are thinking or feeling physically or emotionally will likely overwhelm them with concerns about diagnoses they do not actually have while increasing their overall anxiety,” Daino states.
So, if you think you might have a mental health condition based on your online research, make an appointment with your general practitioner or a mental health professional to be thoroughly assessed.
How to Stop the Behavior
While it’s hard to break the habit, and you might not even want to break the habit, it’s not healthy to continue. The longer you look for health answers online, the harder it’ll be to break the cycle later.
Set time limits
One thing to try to help yourself break this habit is actively limit the time you spend Googling symptoms. “If someone is finding that they are frequently getting lost in the internet Googling symptoms or trying to self-diagnose, I would suggest practicing using a timer,” Daino advises. “Setting a timer to begin to set limits on how long you are spending time Googling symptoms is a way to check yourself, it takes practice, but over time it helps.”
Stick to time limits, and try to completely avoid researching outside of that dedicated limited time. As days go by, you can continue to wean down the amount of time you spend online.
Use a distraction
Another technique to keep you from self-diagnosing is distraction. When you feel like doing some Googling distract yourself by doing something else — going for a run, calling up a friend, watching some funny videos, whatever will get you out of your head.
Additionally, you may want to look at your behavior and dig a little deeper into your psyche. “On a practical level, I would suggest asking yourself questions about what else you might be worried about. You may be manifesting that anxiety by Googling symptoms,” Daino says.
Talk to a professional
If you’re having trouble limiting or stopping the behavior, you should strongly consider speaking with a mental health professional. “Being able to openly discuss your concerns and fears with a therapist in a safe setting with reliable information can greatly decrease health anxiety and hypochondria symptoms,” Daino says. “When these thoughts and feelings are spiraling around in your head it can be overwhelming, but when shared in a safe space with a therapist they can be sorted out together.”
You don’t have to feel ashamed if you’re prone to Googling symptoms and self-diagnosing. Many of us do it — myself included. You aren’t alone! However, we must realize that although the situation is common, it’s not healthy. Diagnosing ourselves is dangerous, and it’s certainly best to leave it to the pros. If you think you might be suffering from a mental health condition, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional for a real diagnosis so you can get on the right path to feeling better immediately.