Study links cyberchondria to the belief that dwelling on thoughts is uncontrollable

Research published in the journal Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy sheds new light on cyberchondria — the relatively new phenomenon of health anxiety that is caused by excessive use of internet health websites. The new study found that cyberchondria is linked to both problematic Internet use and metacognitive beliefs.

“This research is an extension of prior research I have completed examining the escalation of health anxiety following repeated internet searches for medical information (sometimes referred to as ‘cyberchondria’). A particular focus of this study was better understanding how beliefs individuals hold may contribute to that escalation of health anxiety,” said the study’s corresponding author, Thomas A. Fergus of Baylor University.

For their study, the researchers surveyed nearly 600 U.S. adults who had used the internet to search for health-related information.

Fergus and his colleague found a correlation between cyberchondria and problematic Internet use. People who agreed with statements such as “I find it hard stop worrying about symptoms or perceived medical conditions that I have researched online” and “I trust my GP/medical professional’s diagnosis over my online self-diagnosis” were more likely to also have problems with controlling their Internet use.

In addition, cyberchondria was correlated with a particular belief about our thoughts. People who scored higher on the cyberchondria test were also more likely to believe that “dwelling on thoughts of illness is uncontrollable.”

“The main study findings are that cyberchondria is related to difficulties managing internet use in general (not specifically tied to internet use surrounding medical information),” Fergus explained. “Beliefs individuals hold about their own thinking — known as metacognitive beliefs — appear particularly relevant to cyberchondria. Metacognitive beliefs that individuals hold pertaining to not having control over their health-related thoughts were most robustly related to cyberchondria.”

The study was the first to examine the relationship between metacognitive beliefs and cyberchondria, but — as usual — more research is needed. The study employed a cross-sectional design, preventing the researchers from drawing any inferences about cause and effect.

“This study represents preliminary findings and future research is needed to examine whether metacognitive beliefs represent a cause or consequence of cyberchondria,” Fergus told PsyPost. “Undoubtedly, other variables warrant consideration in a comprehensive model of cyberchondria. My research team is looking to examine those variables in the service of detailing such a model of cyberchondria.”

Obsessively searching the web for possible health conditions can be problematic, but there is nothing wrong with occasionally researching medical information on the internet.

“It is important to note that not all internet searches for medical information are maladaptive, as, for many individuals, internet searches for medical information leads to a sense of relief and/or improved health awareness,” Fergus said.

The study, “Cyberchondria: Examining relations with problematic Internet use and metacognitive beliefs“, was also co-authored by Marcantonio M. Spada.