is self-diagnosis more harm than good?

We’ve all been there at some point: we begin to feel off, a symptom we’ve never had before, and in the search for quick answers, we go online and try to self-diagnose ourselves. We start off thinking we’re healthy and just having an off day, and then end up thinking we’re on the verge of death.

Despite websites like WebMD very clearly stating to take their advice with a grain of salt, we still feel drawn to its explanations, even when they are far from reality. We find comfort in dissolving the unknown with something, especially with something as pertinent as our health. We hunt our labels to validate ourselves and even feel empowered by our “enhanced insight”…because isn’t it great to feel independent from doctors and hospitals if you can find answers yourself?

My own experience self-diagnosing.

Having anxiety and full access to the internet is not always the best combination. I cannot tell you how many diseases I’ve self-diagnosed when random occurrences arise, only to dissipate or become disproven soon afterward. For example, I remember my freshman year of college, I woke up one morning with a really stiff neck and generally didn’t feel well. So, sensibly enough, I thought I caught meningitis and should drive myself to the emergency room.
I believe I did end up going to the doctor that day, only to be told I should take my seasonal allergy medication, but my tendency to be shaken up by the unknown in my body is a regular stressor. When does a migraine become something more serious? Is this what a heart attack feels like? Am I too young to have arthritis? Is this random pain where my appendix is? You name it, I’ve thought about it.
I’ve noticed myself doing it less often as I’ve gotten more in-touch with my body and health, but I still have questions I rather not leave unanswered. I still need answers and cannot sit idly by assuming I am clueless about how I feel and why I’m feeling this way. And when I cannot figure out what’s “wrong” with me? I beat myself up over it. I spend hours doing research, figuring out how I can be healthier and more aware.

Where self-diagnosis goes wrong.

Obviously my relationship to self-diagnosis isn’t healthy. I allow insecurity to drive my search for my health rather than simply wanting to gain knowledge about wellness. Although resources like Mayo Clinic and WebMD are full of valid information, using them alone is dangerous.
By self-diagnosing yourself, you’re assuming you and the internet are experts in a disease and can replicate the extensive education and training of the medical field. You’re assuming you fully understand how certain diseases look and feel, every subtlety and detail a diagnosis constitutes. Not only that, but you’re too often misleading yourself to pursue certain labels and treatment options you don’t even need.
Doctors are very essential tools at our disposal that, if we have the luxury to access, we should. It’s too easy to get lost in our own heads and work ourselves up to exhibit certain behaviors and thoughts aligned with a self-diagnosed disease. The mind is so powerful, and its connection with the body can actually manifest what we think we have, our thoughts turning into our reality. Doctors then can serve as an outside voice of reason, a mirror to reflect our symptoms and unease upon for a second knowledgeable opinion. They serve the people for our best interest, whether we believe that fully or not. Go to multiple doctors for multiple opinions if you need to, but make sure to still have a doctor to discuss your thoughts with before taking drastic measures.

Mental health and self-diagnosis.

The true danger lies in self-diagnosing mental illness. There’s a reason we stigmatize them: they are immensely complicated, and many of their symptoms aren’t visible to others not reading our minds. Disorders like depression and anxiety often constitute a plethora of emotional and physical symptoms we might assume from other diseases when really, there is a single culprit at hand. If you’re experiencing things like insomnia, restlessness, fatigue, mood swings, digestive issues, aches and pains…don’t jump to immediate conclusions.
By diminishing mental illness into limited key symptoms and assumptions, we neglect empathizing with those clinically diagnosed and treating their mental health and we perpetuate misunderstanding. We do more harm than good thinking we can become experts and skip over medical “middle men” in becoming our healthiest selves.

Bottom line.

It’s helpful to have medical information so accessible to us. Never before have we had this immense database at our disposal to learn more and make conscious choices for ourselves. However, when it comes to self-diagnosis, do not take everything to heart. Instead, use online resources as a direction for where to potentially seek out professional insight. If you are searching out a reason for your symptoms, getting the exact diagnosis may not be as important as getting the correct advice about whether — or how quickly — to go to the doctor.
Also, to be a proactive mental health advocate rather than a reactive or passive person looking to the internet for answers, talk to others. Mental illness is common enough, you likely know those struggling with a mental disorder. Focus on resources that encourage empathy, for realizing how much progress we still need to make in mental health awareness.
And if you’re amidst an online rabbit hole, stressing over a disease you may or may not have, take a step back and just breathe. More likely than not, you’re okay. Allow time to reflect and return to your concerns before doing anything drastic. That is a more viable way of treating yourself well.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie
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