Study explores the psychological predictors of cyberchondria, a pattern of excessive searching for health information online

A new study has identified psychological constructs that best predict the tendency to excessively search for health-related information online while experiencing spiraling anxiety. The findings, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, revealed that health anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms are among the top predictors of this behavior.

More than ever, people are turning to search engines for answers to their health-related questions. While online health information is easy to access, the content shared is not always accurate or helpful, and often a quick search for a health query can result in increased anxiety. When this searching behavior becomes excessive, scientists call it cyberchondria.

Cyberchondria describes a pattern of excessive searching for health-related information online that results in increasing anxiety. Researchers Stylianos Arsenakis and colleagues explain that people who exhibit cyberchondria tend to experience negative emotions after conducting health-related searches and yet feel compelled to continue the behavior. Along the way, they may grow hesitant to trust their own physician.

Psychologists have attempted to understand cyberchondria by considering how it relates to health anxiety, intolerance of uncertainty, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But Arsenakis and team say that there is no scientific consensus concerning which of these constructs are most relevant. The scholars conducted a research study to determine which constructs are most helpful in understanding the development and severity of cyberchondria.

An online questionnaire was completed by 749 participants who said they had searched online for health information within the past three months. The participants were English-speaking adults between the ages of 18 and 75 and came from a range of countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland).

The participants completed a 33-item cyberchondria severity scale, which included subscales addressing excessiveness of the behavior, compulsion, distress, reassurance-seeking, and distrust of medical personnel. They also completed measures of health anxiety, general anxiety, OCD symptoms, intolerance of uncertainty, depressive symptoms, and somatic symptoms (e.g., headache, nausea).

A multiple regression analysis revealed that all measures were significant predictors of cyberchondria severity except for general anxiety. The six variables explained 53% of the variance in cyberchondria severity, after controlling for age, sex, and education. Health anxiety, OCD symptom severity, intolerance of uncertainty, and somatic symptoms were positive predictors. Depressive symptoms was a negative predictor — fewer depressive symptoms predicted more severe cyberchondria.

Some scholars have suggested that depression may lead people to search for health information online as a coping strategy for their distress, but these study findings suggest people with depression are in fact less likely to conduct online health searches. The authors of the study say this may indicate that depression encourages a kind of “passivity, resignation, or surrender” when facing the possibility of illness. Anxiety, on the other hand, likely motivates people to try to eliminate health-related threat or uncertainty by searching online.

Health anxiety was the top predictor, followed by OCD symptoms and depressive symptoms. The authors say that it is telling that health anxiety, but not general anxiety, was an important predictor. This suggests that it is specifically anxiety related to one’s health that is correlated with cyberchondria. Arsenakis and team recommend that “individuals scoring high on health anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and/or somatic symptoms should also be screened for cyberchondria.”

Among a few limitations, the study did not include information on the type of websites visited by participants when looking for health-related information — which may prove to play a role in contributing to cyberchondria. Although further study is needed, the researchers say that one possibility for treatment for cyberchondria may be cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for health anxiety.

The study, “Unveiling the relationships between cyberchondria and psychopathological symptoms”, was authored by Stylianos Arsenakis, Anne Chatton, Louise Penzenstadler, Joël Billieux, David Berle, Vladan Starcevic, Kirupamani Viswasam, and Yasser Khazaal.