Why Do We Look up Possible Illnesses?

Is looking for a diagnosis online useful—or more stressful than it's worth?

Posted Jul 11, 2019

Gina Barreca, used with permission
Source: Gina Barreca, used with permission

Whatever you're doing out of a sense of desperation at 2 a.m., odds are that it's not going to be one of your healthiest choices.

Last week, I wasn't feeling well and couldn't sleep. Not wanting to wake my spouse in the middle of the night (or, as my students call it, "early evening"), I tiptoed into my office, disturbing the cats who blinked, yawned, and then put their paws over their eyes in what I felt were exaggerated expressions of feline sufferance.

Once at my desk, I gave in to temptation. I rarely allow myself to touch a keyboard after midnight, and there are excellent reasons for this. Unless your friends live in other time zones, you invest heavily in foreign markets or are extremely aggressive about getting that first seat on Southwest, there are few good reasons to sit alone in the dark in front of the screen while everybody else in your home is sleeping.

Here's what I did: I typed in a constellation of physical ailments bothering me that night. Then I hit "search."

It was a mistake.

Going online to look for ailments is like going online looking for relationships: If you're truly focused, you'll find a match. What I did, as my editor put it, was basically enter: "Mature woman, bookish, loves walking on the beach, seeking an explanation for nagging cough w/ similar interests."

Yes, I had a nagging cough, but I'd been struggling for a month with a bad cold. Since I was feeling particularly vulnerable, I somehow wanted to validate my sense of distress.

When you put anxiety-filled questions out there, write a virtual note and toss it into an e-bottle, the Seas of Google will return responses to you by the caseload.

The medical sites genuinely were like dating sites, and I had the indiscriminate reactions of a novice: I found myself drawn to porphyria, but wondered whether it was real or whether I was influenced by my affection for the poem with the same name. Yellow fever appeared to have my number, but then Colorado tick fever caught my eye (not literally). Yet since I didn't want to choose between members of the closely-knit fever family, I decided neither could be "The One."

I went through the possibility of Lampington's disease, xenopolycythemia, and plain old spirit possession, but the further out I was willing to go, the further away I seemed to get from what ailed me.

All I really wanted was for the Mayo Clinic to reach out, send me a cute pic of its considerable library, and say, "Gina, sweetheart, you have a cold. Drink lots of water, have some warm tea, and sleep as much as you can. Stop fretting."

The Mayo C., as I would soon call it (we'd become friends very quickly and be on a first-name basis), might also say, "Try not to invent reasons to convince yourself that you're dreadfully ill when you're dealing with ordinary discomforts. If you suddenly start feeling far worse or aren't getting better with time, then get yourself looked at, but don't torture yourself by stalking physical calamities."

Actually, the Mayo C. did sort of say that: The most useful part of my after-midnight research last week landed me on a section of their website titled "illness anxiety disorder."

I learned that a real problem, called health anxiety, is defined as the excessive and preoccupying fear that uncomfortable or unusual physical sensations are indications of a serious medical condition. It can keep you away from the doctor, because you're scared of what you'll be told, or keep you at doctors' offices continually, because you don't believe them when they say you're OK.

You might be terrified of inheriting a disease that afflicted a family member to the point where you're unable to enjoy life, because one day it will end. One of the symptoms of illness anxiety disorder is "frequently searching the internet for causes of symptoms or possible illnesses."

I realized I'd found a match—and understood it wasn't a connection I wanted to pursue.

I shut down the computer, coughed a bit, turned out the lights, and headed back to bed, where I belonged.