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Don't Google Your Symptoms: Why We Get Medical Anxiety

One-third of Americans regularly google medical symptoms. But the results aren’t always helpful.

by Gretchen Brown
January 31, 2020 | Health

I woke up in the middle of the night with pain in my chest.

I rolled over and grabbed my phone, googling my symptoms.

It didn’t look good. “Think you’re having a heart attack? Call 911 immediately,” Google advised me.

“Chest pain has many causes — most of them are serious,” read a Web MD page.

Was it coronary artery disease? Myocarditis? Mitral valve prolapse? Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy?

Or maybe it was my lungs? My liver? Pneumonia? Undiagnosed asthma? A broken rib? Shingles?

Spoiler alert: I wasn’t dying, and it wasn’t a heart attack, or any of those serious conditions. Not even close.

One-third of Americans regularly google medical symptoms. But the results aren’t always helpful.

According to one study of emergency department patients, only 29 percent of folks got the same diagnosis from Google as they did from a doctor.

“Going online to diagnose your symptoms will likely increase your anxiety and not provide you with real answers to your problem,” licensed clinical psychologist Sharon Saline said.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that you’re dying whenever you experience unfamiliar pain or some other new medical symptoms. I’ve certainly done it more than once.

But that medical anxiety can also serve a useful purpose, encouraging us to seek help if we need it.

A woman at a computer feels pain. REWIRE PBS Living Medical Anxiety
Making time to go to the doctor regularly can help you feel more in control of your own health.

“It is normal to experience some anxiety when plagued by physical symptoms,” licensed professional counselor Natalie Mica said. “Anxiety is the body's normal and protective response to discomfort.”

So how are you supposed to know when you’re overthinking it, and when you actually need to go see a doctor?

The most important thing you can do is take action in some way, says Marni Amsellem, a licensed psychologist.

“Taking action may simply mean approaching your concerns rationally,” she said. “Asking yourself if there may be logical explanations for the symptom.”

Take action

Taking action might also mean calling your doctor or scheduling an appointment, so you can actually get your symptoms checked out.

That sounds simple. But anxiety can be immobilizing for some folks, and keep them from actually taking that step, Amsellem said.

Mica said there are certain symptoms for which you should always seek medical attention after a few days:

  • unexplained weight loss or a persistent fever
  • change of mood or confusion
  • shortness of breath
  • severe and sustained pain
  • disrupted vision

“Practice sitting with the anxiety to understand its true source,” Mica said. “And if you can connect it with prior experiences, beliefs, or fears related to your or loved ones' previous discomfort or illnesses.”

For instance, if your family has a history with cancer, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that that’s what you’re dealing with. It’s important to think logically about whether that’s the case with you and your symptoms.

If you feel nervous about actually going in to get it checked out, you can always start with a phone call to your regular doctor, or a visit to a walk-in clinic.

Many insurance companies also offer partnerships with online clinics like Virtuwell, which offer virtual visits for less money than an in-person visit.

Don't talk in circles

I didn’t just google my symptoms. I also called my parents, and texted my friends, to see if they thought my symptoms were as bad as they seemed.

In the end, though, this didn’t help any more than googling — especially since none of these folks are medical professionals. It’s not that you can’t tell your friends and family about what’s going on. But dwelling on it with other people can just make you feel worse.

My mom was about ready to send an ambulance to my apartment, which made me even more nervous about my symptoms.

“Talk to friends or family for a limited amount of time about this each day and then set it aside,” Saline said. “Don’t jump ahead to conclusions that may well be irrelevant or incorrect.”

Schedule regular visits

Going to the doctor a few days later and realizing that I wasn’t, in fact, dying made all of my anxiety about the symptoms go away.

Making time to go to the doctor regularly can help you feel more in control of your own health, and less likely to spiral when you do feel unfamiliar symptoms.

You’ll be more likely to catch health issues in the early stages before they get worse. And, you’ll be more comfortable going back to the doctor if something does come up.

Mica also recommended taking time each day to check in with your own body, emotions and thoughts. This way, you’ll be more likely to catch subtle changes on a day-to-day basis.

“Untended emotions and negative thinking can build up and later manifest in physical symptoms and even illness,” she said. “A mindfulness practice helps prevent the buildup of unnecessary stress on the body.”

My own diagnosis was anxiety. As it turns out, googling your chest pain when it’s caused by anxiety just makes your chest pain worse.

Even though my diagnosis wasn’t as serious as a heart attack, my doctor told me he was glad that I made it into the office in the first place.

It’s important to know that you’ll never be made fun of or shamed for checking out symptoms that worry you.

“It is always better to just go and see your doctor if you are not sure about your health,” said dentist Greg Grobmyer.

The more you can practice taking action when you feel that anxiety ramp up, the better you'll be able to deal with it in the future.

How do you deal with medical anxiety? Tell us below in the comments.

Google isn't always bad. Sometimes taking action on your health looks like taking steps to advocate for yourself. Read about how you can do that here.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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