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Anxiety

The Age of Medical Misinformation: Dr. Google Isn't Always Right

Navigating health anxiety in the rabbit hole of the Internet.

Key points

  • People won't stop searching the Internet for health advice, but they do need to search smarter.
  • Hypochondria isn't listed in the DSM anymore. Instead, we have illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder.
  • When it comes to health information, the media can be an incredible resource and filled with misrepresentations.

Casey Gueren has been a health reporter and editor for a decade. Among her many accomplishments: She was awarded the Planned Parenthood Media Excellence Award for online health reporting, and she launched the Health Conditions A-Z hub at Self Magazine. But here's her confession, she has been anxious about her health and hyper-vigilant about her body and quick to assume that any rogue symptom is actually a sign of something serious or fatal—is that a leg cramp or a blood clot? Too much coffee or is that a tremor? Is this headache actually COVID?

We can all relate to a degree.

As a health reporter and editor, Gueren has created health content that people might end up clicking on when they Google their symptoms in the middle of the night. She realized that her experience on both ends of the click actually helped her navigate her own health questions and concerns a lot more easily. How great would it be if everyone could learn the same tips and tricks? And now we can with her recent book, It's Probably Nothing: The Stress-Less Guide to Dealing with Health Anxiety, Wellness Fads, and Overhyped Headlines

Googling your symptoms can be tempting, but you don't tell people to stop doing that, right?

Absolutely not. I know we're all going to keep doing that because it's so easy and sometimes it's helpful. But it can also be incredibly anxiety-inducing. I research health information for a living and even I end up spiraling down Internet rabbit holes sometimes.

I don't expect people to say goodbye to Dr. Google forever, but I do want to teach people how to search smarter, how to do their own fact-checking, and how to be more discerning of what sources you're getting your health information from.

Why is it important to address misconceptions around the term hypochondriac?

Nitsawankaterattanakul Shutterstock
Source: Nitsawankaterattanakul Shutterstock

We throw around the term hypochondriac a lot, but our colloquial usage doesn't always reflect the reality of health anxiety. When people think of a hypochondriac they might think of someone who is convinced—for no particular reason—that they have every disease imaginable and won't leave a doctor's office until they have a diagnosis. That's not only stigmatizing but it's also largely incorrect. Your health anxiety may not look anything like that—mine certainly didn't.

Psychologists have explained that hypochondriasis isn't even listed in the DSM anymore. Instead, there are two different mental health disorders that encompass the fear and preoccupation with having a serious illness: illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder. And each of these can present in different ways.

It's also important to remember that, like so many mental health concerns, health anxiety can exist on a spectrum. It might be something that you just experience every once in a while or it could be something that is interfering with your day-to-day life in a significant enough way that it falls under one of those diagnoses.

What role do you think the media plays in keeping us informed—but not too anxious—about our health?

I think the media has such an important role in disseminating health information, especially because getting quality, affordable health care is so inaccessible for so many people. The reality is that most people get a lot of their health information from the media (whether it's from a news story, a health magazine, or social media), which is why responsible health reporting is so crucial. But unfortunately, there's a lot of irresponsible health content out there—from fake news and wellness fads on social media to sloppy reporting and careless headlines that only tell half the story.

When it comes to health information, I think the media can be both an incredible resource and an incredible instigator. We should give people the tools to better digest and act on the health news they're getting every day by helping them understand how health content gets created in the first place, how it gets shared, and what red flags to watch for—particularly if you're someone who tends to be hypervigilant about your health.

With wellness fads and health hacks everywhere, what advice do you have for navigating them?

Be skeptical. Of course, not everything in your self-care routine needs to be evidence-based—you can engage with wellness fads just because they make you feel good. But if you're putting something on or in your body, I suggest you do some digging to find out what research (if any) has been done to confirm the claims surrounding it. Remember that "natural" does not equal "safe" and that personal anecdotes are not the same as peer-reviewed data. And if anything is claiming to be a cure-all, it's probably not.

References

It's Probably Nothing: The Stress-Less Guide to Dealing with Health Anxiety, Wellness Fads, and Overhyped Headlines

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