Is Cyberchondria a New Transdiagnostic Digital Compulsive Syndrome? A Systematic Review of the Evidence
Background. Cyberchondria (CYB) has been described relatively recently as a behaviour characterized by excessive online searching for medical information that is associated with increasing levels of health anxiety. Although CYB has received some attention from researchers, there is no consensus about many of its aspects. Aims. We describe one of the first reported cases of a treatment-seeking patient with CYB. We review the published literature on the definition of CYB, its assessment, epidemiology, cost and burden, psychological models and mechanisms associated with CYB, relationships between CYB and mental disorders and prevention and treatment strategies. Methods: Systematic review of all peer-reviewed papers published within the PubMed, PsycINFO, and Cochrane Library databases. Results. 61 articles were selected. Nearly all the studies were descriptive and cross-sectional recruiting sample mainly from the general/university student population and collecting self-report data via online surveys. Data on epidemiology, clinical features, course, comorbidity and therapeutic interventions were scarce. CYB showed a self-reported association with health anxiety, hypochondriasis and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as well as other forms of problematic usage of the internet (PUI) The psychological mechanisms associated with CYB include low self-esteem, anxiety sensitivity, intolerance of uncertainty, pain catastrophizing and certain meta-cognitive beliefs. Conclusion: A working definition of CYB includes excessive online health searches that are compulsive and may serve the purpose of seeking reassurance, whilst leading to a worsening of anxiety or distress and further negative consequences. CYB represents a clinically relevant transdiagnostic compulsive behavioural syndrome, closely related to PUI and usually presenting in association with health anxiety, hypochondriasis and/or OCD. CYB is clearly in need of further study and we identify key areas for future research.