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WebMD, Let Me Be! (on Cyberchondria)

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The word Google is silly and abstract. It sounds like ‘giggle’, and ‘ogle’, and ‘boogey’. The website design itself is enticingly minimalist, indicating order and simplicity in yielding results to whatever quip or query has been punched in, (despite the overwhelming slew of information that has actually been listed). However, I don’t think that the mysterious forces of indexing, keyword optimisation and paid advertising are beyond anyone’s imagination at this point: whatever we’ve been ‘ogling’ on Amazon is sure to ‘boogey’ into our Facebook and paid search ad suggestions.

Our reflex to idiomatically use the word ‘google’ to replace ‘search’, is akin to our growing propensity to turn to the website reflexively as a response to unsureness — an action that spells trouble for the perpetually unsure. Is it normal to have allergies in winter? Why are my hands sweating? What is codependency? Am I on my true path?  Why would I keep these worries running in my head when I could use them to open a conversation that will hopefully provide me with some answers? 

 

Symptom-Googling, which has colloquially begun to be known as ‘cyberchondria’ turns our mobile phones, which practically live in our hands anyway, into some paranoia-appendage that affirms the worst-case scenario most of the time. You need only type in ‘headache dizzy blurred vision’, or if you’re incapacitated enough, ‘heachanxe dizay bliered vision’ (Google is there for you) for a whole slew of symptom-checkers and articles; often citing rare and/or unlikely conditions that just elicit further ‘research’, further worry and no conclusive medical evidence, save probably strained eyes and a stomach ulcer. I know of no medical professional that would endorse self-diagnosis based on a list of symptoms rather than an official screening, because, when we are checking online symptoms almost compulsively, we are not actually looking for a conclusive diagnosis. Those of us that are not doctors are very aware that we are not doctors. Rather, we are possibility shopping, and once the worst outcome possible seems within our reach because it has been affirmed by a WebMD symptom list, we begin to panic.  

 

Abuse of the internet should come as no surprise. Checking Twitter and Instagram relentlessly is an act of social diagnosis, that often ends in us feeling inferior and buzzy from an overload of other people’s information. Medical diagnosis is just next on the list – and Symptom Googling needn’t pertain only to the physical. The new frontier for hypochondriacs responds to uncertainties both physical and mental, ranging all the way to existential dread and life-purpose anxiety (this is TED territory). If the symptom checkers weren’t discouraging enough, the worst of it all are the forums, and there are health forums for every problem or non-problem imaginable. Even less reassuring, there seems to be hundreds of people out there, just like you, who actually have no idea what is happening to them and are all part of the internet’s collective subconscious of hypochondriac misery. The way these forums are structured breeds hopelessness, often including pages and pages of symptomatic cries into the dark from 2010, sympathising with the previous poster but going unanswered. Here are some examples: 

 

‘I’ve had brain fog and debilitating memory loss for 4 years!’ 

 

‘20 blood tests and still no answers’ 

 

‘I woke up as a beetle and my family is frightened’. 

 

And so, for a while, you are locked in pseudo-medical meta hell, a territory in which all roads lead to cancer. 

 

There is no denying that in a medical context, a patient’s instincts are not to be ignored — however, with casual cyberchondria, the sense of fear can take over one’s attention to their physical and mental responses, and often small details are either amplified to an extortionate degree or symptoms will begin occurring out of fear alone. The mind is very powerful in these cases. For example, if one were to read an article on Retinal Tear or Detachment and begin looking for eye floaters as a symptom, of course they would find an increase in eye floaters, simply because they will find what they are looking for (and everybody gets eye floaters). Another example is a woman’s period, that is sometimes delayed, or missed altogether due to the obsessive anxiety over an unwanted pregnancy, as the body follows these strong messages sent from the mind.  

 

A danger of symptom checking is of course misdiagnosis, and subsequent actions taken that can be costly and take a physical toll. Many of the sites used to divulge information on your list of symptoms are inconsistent and cannot take environmental factors or medical history into account. Another danger is that we attempt to amend things which should not and cannot be altered (for an extreme example, think of the botched club-foot amputation in Madame Bovary). However, much of the danger involved in symptom-checking has to do with one’s mental wellbeing, as the mind grows weary from this kind of vigilance that is inherently circular, in that it does not yield any medical results but also does not provide the assurance that we are being helped.  

 

There are even help forums for people who cannot stop googling, which I found through a quick google search of ‘can’t stop googling’. The cyclical thinking that accompanies self-diagnosis is toxic and tiresome and dangerous, unable to provide us with any real answers: yet we type on, against our better judgment, borne back ceaselessly into the Googleplex.  

 

If you are being plagued by a propensity to find quick solutions to your physical, emotional, and spiritual quips online and you’re only finding that it’s making the problem worse, the best thing to do would be to stop the cycle and seek other means of help outside of your own faculties – QMUL’s Advice and Counselling service would be a great place to start! Remember that engaging with a website is only continuing a conversation with yourself, and you are making a choice to select the worse-case scenario as a response to all of your questions. 

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