The stress of life is so much more than it was 50 years ago. People take in so much stress on a daily basis, which ends up affecting them mentally and emotionally. When the stress level is too high, they think that there’s something wrong with them and end up at the hospital to see a doctor.

As a result, doctors find themselves consulting patients, who think there is something wrong with them when in reality there’s really nothing wrong with them, medically-speaking. These types of patients are actually suffering from cyberchondria.

Growing cases of health anxiety everywhere

Prof Peter Tyrer, emeritus professor in community psychiatry at Imperial College London, said, “We suspect that [health anxiety] is increasing in frequency because of what is now called 'cyberchondria'.”

Patients with cyberchondria is now considered a growing problem, as UK researchers found out that one in five hospital out-patients suffer from it. Since there has been no treatment options offered by doctors, these researchers suggest to use psychotherapy.

A team of researchers, mental health experts, from Imperial College London and King's College London decided to study the growing cyberchondria phenomenon in the hope of making doctors’ lives easier.

Though this study was conducted in the UK, this problem exists in other countries as well, irrespective of whether it’s a developed or developing state. A World Health Organisation (WHO) study, which was conducted in 2016, discovered that patients from all walks of life suffered from health anxiety.

Excessive “Googling” and self-diagnosing among patients with cyberchondria would lead to situations whereby patients insist that there’s something wrong with them, despite being told otherwise by their medical experts.
Excessive “Googling” and self-diagnosing among patients with cyberchondria would lead to situations whereby patients insist that there’s something wrong with them, despite being told otherwise by their medical experts.

It is a well-known fact that anxiety includes symptoms which are similar to certain physical illnesses. While doctors realise that these patients are probably having an anxiety attack, the feeling of pain is so strong to them that they strongly feel that they are sick.

When patients with headaches and chest pains rush to the hospital, they have it in their head that they are suffering from something; so, even if the doctors reassure them, they still will continue to worry and ask for an advanced diagnosis or seek second and third opinions.

Explaining with how things are now, Prof Tyrer said, “This is because people now go to their GPs with a whole list of things they've looked up on the internet – and the poor GP, five minutes into the consultation, has four pages of reading to do.”

Researchers think that all this is unnecessary and a waste of time for everyone involved. While they think that Google is very informative, it doesn’t mean that patients are getting the right diagnosis for their anxiety issues.

The NHS has to deal with this growing problem by spending approximately GBP420m (USD73 million) a year. Researchers reported this study’s findings in the National Institute for Health Research journal.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions

They discovered that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions are much more effective for patients with health anxiety issues. CBT sessions are not just better therapy solutions, they also last for up to five years.

From five hospitals in England, 444 patients with severe health anxiety were chosen by researchers to be involved in this study. CBT is a therapy that nurses, doctors and trained psychologists can deliver.

Prof Tyrer commented how health anxiety is not given much importance by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). He commented how patients with other physical illnesses commonly suffered from health anxiety, but the latter is ignored by healthcare professionals.

The CBT that has been suggested by this study’s researchers consists of an average of six sessions. Patients, who underwent all six sessions, had great improvement resulting in significant and sustained reductions when it came to their anxiety levels.

Long-lasting effects of CBT

The effects of the CBT sessions were felt by the patients even five years after the therapy had ended. They found that they were less over-anxious than patients, who have not yet gone through the CBT sessions.

A consultant cardiologist at Guy's and St Thomas Hospital, Prof John Chambers, agreed that patients need to undergo a psychological explanation and a psychological intervention when doctors find that there’s nothing wrong with them physically.

According to him, health anxiety is the reason why accident and emergency departments, GP surgeries and out-patient clinics are filled with patients that don’t really require the care that is offered from these departments.

It is a fact that has not been exaggerated since experts, too, have complained that over 20% of appointments for heart or brain scans in the UK are by patients, who are perfectly fine and are suspected to be suffering from excessive health anxiety or hypochondria. MIMS

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