Internet searches, cyberchondria and fear of the unknown

Most people can relate to searching for the answer to a health-related question online, but people don't all react the same way to what they find. Some do a simple search and are satisfied with what they find. Others don’t withdraw from the cyber-world of medical information so quickly, and the information they find can lead to anxiety.

Dr. Thomas Fergus, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences, studies the correlation between fear of the unknown and health-related anxiety. He didn't coin the term cyberchondria, but his research has helped people understand it better.

"It's important to define what cyberchondria is and isn't," Fergus said. "Cyberchondria isn't merely searching for information online. It's searching and becoming anxious, and then continuing to search even more."

Fergus surveyed more than 500 adults across the nation to learn more about the correlation between fear of the unknown and anxiety. He found that individuals who exhibit a lower tolerance for ambiguity were more likely to experience health-related anxiety after a medical web search.

"There's always ambiguity with online medical information," Fergus said. "It's never really conclusive. If you can't tolerate that uncertainty, you may search more, and the more explanations you find, the more uncertainty you have the more anxiety you experience."

If you can relate to the snowball effect of searching for information online, becoming anxious and searching for more, Fergus suggests simply logging off and talking to someone who can help.

"You're probably not doing yourself a service to continue to search and search," Fergus said. "If you find web searches distressing, it may be wise not to do it anymore. Follow sound medical advice and talk to a doctor. That's the best thing you can do if you are worried."