HEALTHY LIVING
10/11/2013 08:32 am ET

Cyberchondria More Common In People Who Fear The Unknown

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Got a weird rash on your arm? You might turn to Google to figure out what's wrong -- but a new study suggests people who are afraid of the unknown should probably stay offline.

Researchers from Baylor University found that people who dislike uncertainty have worse "cyberchondria" -- that is, online hypochondria -- than those who are less concerned about the future.

"If I'm someone who doesn't like uncertainty, I may become more anxious, search further, monitor my body more, go to the doctor more frequently -- and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities," study researcher Thomas Fergus, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the university, said in a statement. "If I see a site about traumatic brain injuries and have difficulties tolerating uncertainty, I might be more likely to worry that's the cause of the bump on my head."

The study, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, is based on data from 512 adults with no medical diagnoses and an average age of 33.

In order to tease apart the relationship between fear of the unknown and cyberchondria, all the study participants took a series of tests to gauge their outlook on the future, including the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (which asked participants to rank their agreement with statements such as, "I always want to know what the future has in store for me") and the Short Health Anxiety Inventory (which asked participants to rank their agreement with statements such as, "I spend most of my time worrying about my health"). Researchers also looked at how often they went online for medical information, their level of health anxiety, and their general levels of distress.

"To date, little is known about under what conditions individuals experience cyberchondria. The present research helped fill this gap in the literature, and found that IU [intolerance of uncertainty] moderated the impact of search for medical information on the Internet on health anxiety," researchers wrote in the study. "Specifically, the relationship between the frequency of searching for medical information on the Internet and health anxiety grew increasingly stronger as IU increased."

CNN pointed out that while some cases of cyberchondria might be good -- since it means the patient is being active in his or her own health, which can lead to better outcomes -- searching for broad symptoms often leads to mis-self-diagnosis, which could then heighten anxiety.

The "mind is a powerful thing. It controls everything in the body: nervous system, mood, thyroid. When your mind is overly stressed about what you have, you start symptomizing where you create your symptoms," Dr. Chris Balgobin, of Fairview Clinics, told CBS affiliate WCCO. "You start feeling this pain. 'Wow, it's tingly over here. I must have a stroke.' And you go down this road of anxiety building."

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