I have several people each week who phone me or email me and explain that they have read about their symptoms online and given themselves an internet diagnosis that they obviously have ADHD, OCD, Paranoid Scizophrenia, Clinical Depression* and need hypnotherapy to help them get over it. They believe they’ve gone crazy…

*delete where appropriate.

If you’ve ever been on a therapy training programme of some kind or been in a psychology class, you may well be familiar with ‘Student Syndrome’ which is a common ‘condition’ whereby a student begins to think that he/she and/or their family and friends all have the mental conditions they are learning about.

A bad day? Well the self-diagnosis is major depression. Challenging relationship? Well that obviously demonstrates paranoid delusions of kinds. PMS?  Maybe it’s bipolar disorder. On edge? That’ll be ADHD…

Now, thanks to the internet, anyone and everyone throughout the world is perfectly capable and has all they need to develop the internet version of hypochondria – cyberchondria. With all that health advice just a click away, it’s all to easy to consult Dr Google when we’re feeling under the weather and all too easy to give ourselves a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.

While cyberchondria has been around for almost a decade, Microsoft scientists Eric Horvitz and Ryen White were the first to systemically investigate it. After analyzing the internet behavior of a million surfers around the world and surveying more than 500 Microsoft employees, they found:

– In contrast to the actual prevalence of life-threatening illnesses, the proportion of websites listing them as primary causes is significantly higher. For example, while brain tumours occur in less than one if 50,000 people, 25% of the documents showing up in a web search for ‘headache’ point to a brain tumour as a possible cause.

– About 75 percent of internet health information seekers fail to check either the date or the source of their health information.

– People frequently confuse search rankings with the actual likelihood that a serious disease exists. For example, if a search for ‘muscle twitching’ produces three results near the top of the page about ALS, then, it’s ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a terminal disease.”

The solution isn’t to stay clear of the internet; it’s a great resource. However, it’s unfiltered. This is especially true when it comes to mental illnesses, which often have overlapping symptoms and differ from normal emotions only by their frequency and severity.

To be honest, if you looked at some of the symptoms my prospective clients point out to me, it leaves me thinking “anyone and everyone must currently have this illness then?!”

Maybe the next time you scour the internet when you’re feeling slightly emotionally unbalanced, you should self-screen rather than self-diagnosing. There are lots of mental health screening tools available on the internet. These can be useful both as a starting place in evaluating troubling emotional symptoms and as an ongoing reality check in terms of how much progress is being made. For instance, the instrument that has been reported to be most helpful in screening for bipolar disorder is the Mood Disorder Questionnaire, which is widely available for free on the Internet.

Don’t forget, though: screening tools cast a wide net. By design, they over-recognise symptoms so that the person will be encouraged to follow up with a professional. Take advantage of these free resources, print out your answers, and bring them with you to your clinician.

As well as checking what standards the site adheres to when you are surfing for your ifnormation, also consider the context of what is happening for you.

It is usual for people who’ve just lost a loved one to suffer many of the symptoms of major depression; in this context, they’re the typical manifestations of grief. Unfortunately, current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM – IV) criteria doesn’t recognise the intense sadness that can arise after the end of a love affair, marital separation, diagnosis of serious illness in oneself or a loved one, or the loss of a valued job.

A recent study, however, if DSM-IV guidelines for bereavement were extended to reactions triggered by other losses, about 25% of persons who are currently diagnosed with depressive disorders might, in fact, be experiencing an intense, but normal, grief reaction that will reside on its own within a couple of months..

When it comes to using the internet to research health information, it’s important to find a balance between taking charge of your mental health and catastrophising every single emotion.