In the Google age it can be hard to distinguish curiosity and taking responsibility for your body from health paranoia. The contingent experts call the ‘worried well’ seems to be growing with each new health website, blog and forum.

Hypochondriac or responsible?

But self-diagnosis by Google is not the same as hypochondria – a psychosomatic condition documented in psychiatry bible the DSM; it involves the suspicion or belief that one has a serious health problem, to the point where it impacts daily life. 

What is hypochondria?

Hypochondria can be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder, syas Dr Rio. The process is unoriginal; it follows the pattern of other anxiety disorders. First you have a single, somewhat moderate negative thought. Next you’re chasing it down that too-familiar catastrophising tunnel, where one what-if snowballs into another. Soon you’re convinced you’re dying and wondering who’s going to look after the kids. 

While the internet age encourages self-diagnosis and fear-based marketing promotes pathological paranoia – if you’re not terrified of germs, you’re hardly going to pay a premium for super molecular soap – the conditions for hypochondria often go deeper. Psychological trauma or predisposition to obsessive thinking can compound cultural cues.

If you grew up with a childhood illness or watched your parents battle will their health, for instance, your health radar is already on high alert. You also will subscribe by default to the illness paradigm, rather than the wellness one, meaning you may see getting sick as inevitable.

Frighteningly, this kind of mindset is also often accompanied by a kind of (often unconscious) will to get sick for the secondary gains you’ve seen it yield for yourself or a loved one.  GP Dr Ronald McCoy says GPs consider psychosomatic causes when diagnosing physical symptoms without obvious causes.

For some people who couldn’t get the help or care they needed, being sick seems like the only – or best – way to get the care they need or express their need for help. (If you can’t convince your man that you can’t possibly pick up the kids five days a week and work full time, recurring flu ought to do it.)

 On the flip side, sticking your head in the sand is just as unhealthy. “Women need to listen to their bodies, think about their holistic experiences and then try to reasonably say, ‘Okay, what do I, and don’t I, need to worry about’,” Dr Rio advises.

Seeing a doctor you can trust, who listens to you but can also help you feel appropriately reassured, is key.

If you think you’re susceptible to becoming obsessed with real or imagined symptoms, psychologist Tracey Veivers from Performance Perspectives advises staying offline, using distraction techniques and positive self-talk when you feel yourself imagining hypotheticals. The fictional story will never end well – we guarantee it.