Recently I was woken up during the wee hours of the morning by a sharp pain in my chest. I’m not typically prone to overreaction, but that night I sat in the dark of my room and fretted. I made a mental checklist of all the heart attack symptoms I knew. Chest pain? Holy heck, yes. Arm or back pain? No. Nausea? No. Cold sweats? No. Light-headedness? No. Shortness of breath? No. Whew. I breathed a sigh of relief. But then I started to feel a little nauseous and short of breath, too. Worry officially crept in and freaked me out. Luckily, before I started chomping on aspirin and making a trip to the ER, sanity kicked worry to the curb. I took a few deep breaths, reminded myself that mere seconds before I hadn’t had those extra symptoms and it wasn’t long before they melted away.
I know I’m not the only one with Google induced-hypochondria. I shared my story with friends the next day, and most had exhibited the exact same thing. One had numbness in her finger and, after Internet research, had convinced herself she had MS. Another had considered talking to her doctor about antidepressants just because her appetite wasn’t what it used to be.
I promise my friends and I aren’t a bunch of nut jobs. In fact, psychosomatic symptoms are quite common. Psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, recalls a client crying hysterically because she thought she had diabetes:
“When I asked her more about it, it turned out she had been experiencing frequent urination and fatigue. When she went to search the internet, Dr. Google diagnosed her with diabetes.
In the end, the client was fatigued because she hadn’t been sleeping well and urinating more frequently because she had been drinking a lot of caffeine (a diuretic).
“Before Al Gore founded the World Wide Web, we used to call this intern’s syndrome,” says Dr. Lombardo. “A medical student would learn about a specific medical problem and then start to have the symptoms.” With the readiness of information on the Web, we’re all prone to overreacting to symptoms or manifesting false symptoms that we really don’t have. That’s not helpful for us and it doesn’t help our doctors when they spend time chasing after false symptoms.
So what are we supposed to do? Place our fingers in our ears and sing ‘la, la, la’ whenever someone discusses medical information? That’s not necessary. We can all be knowledgeable, aware patients without creating unnecessary worry. Here are Dr. Lombardo’s top five tips for being an informed patient without freaking yourself out:
1. Realize the power of your mind. Just by being aware that anyone can manifest symptoms, you can better control them. While it isn’t wise to ignore signals your body is giving you, you don’t want to overreact. Also, it’s important to remember that manifesting the symptoms doesn’t mean you’re faking them. It’s more of an unconscious, rather than conscious, event.
2. Consider your level of stress. The more stressed you are about being ill, the more likely you are to manifest the symptoms. If you think there’s a chance the symptoms aren’t real, go about your day and try to take your mind off it. Psychosomatic symptoms will fade when you’re not actively thinking about them — real symptoms don’t care whether you’re thinking about them or not.
3. Research, but make sure your website is reputable. There is tons of information out there, but much is inaccurate, phrased in a way to scare you or only highlights the worst-case scenario. Stick to well-respected sites like Mayo Clinic. Even then, remember that a website can’t diagnose — that’s a job for your doctor.
4. Every symptom has multiple potential causes. For example, fatigue, forgetfulness, clumsiness, dizziness, loss of balance, weakness, irritability and difficulties concentrating are all symptoms of not getting a good night’s sleep as well as potential components of illness you may read about on the Internet.
5. Consider alternatives. Because the same symptoms can be caused by many factors, ask yourself what else it could be. If you’re too worried to think calmly, remember cooler heads prevail and ask a friend to help you come up with alternative reasons.
Oh, and that sharp chest pain that made me worry I was having a heart attack? It was heartburn. That will teach me to eat leftover chili before going to bed.