Cyberchondira

This winter, I am here to tell you something that sounds harsh. It sounds harsh because it is harsh, but you need to hear it, and the further into winter we get the more important it will become that you repeat this harsh little home truth to yourself, over and over and over again. Make it a mantra, write it on your mirror using whiteboard pens and your best handwriting so that you have to look at it every day, paint it in foot high letters along a local wall, I don’t care. Do whatever works for you to make sure that, as we leave this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and transition into the season of layers and colds, you remember – you are not dying.

As nihilistic as millennials are wont to be, and as much as we clamour ironically for the warm embrace of death to release us from this world of student loan debts and minimum-wage jobs on zero-hours-contracts, this world in which we probably won’t get paid at all until we’re in our late twenties and most likely will never be able to make a living doing what we love, we do get very worried whenever it looks like that might actually be about to happen to us.

I promise, I’m just as bad as you are, or were, or ever could be. I am onto WebMD and the NHS website the second that I have even the slightest headache, and I will be the first to convince myself I’m dying of a brain haemorrhage before even considering the possibility that I haven’t had enough to drink today, or eaten anything except super-noodles and garlic bread in the last week, or gone outside practically ever.

I’ll let you into a little secret, known only to myself, my family, and anyone I happen to have been in a three-mile radius of in the last month or so: I was recently diagnosed with a Vitamin D deficiency – and before you make the joke, it’s a real thing and not a euphemism for my Tinder matches. When you think about it, it’s not really that surprising that a large percentage of the population of Scotland has low levels of the vitamin you get from sunlight, but it came as a revelation to me, and taking the prescribed supplements has been hugely beneficial. But here’s the thing – before my mother stepped in and forced me to make an appointment at the doctors’, I did a bit of googling, and convinced myself that I was terminally ill.

Having plugged my symptoms into an online diagnosis site other than the infamous WebMD, and telling them my biological gender, my age, and my location, I was immediately presented with a list of 10 possible diagnoses, which included hypothyroidism twice, some terrifyingly complex names like acrodermatitis enteropathica, scurvy, and two different conditions that had little red flags next to them. The website also allows you to filter your results by what’s most common in the population and by “red flags” – having (obviously) chosen the latter, I was greeted with a frankly baffling list of diseases so rare that they’re named after specific people, although whether they’re named after the people who had them or the people who discovered them remains unclear. Absolutely nowhere on the website did it list a vitamin D deficiency.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with googling your symptoms. You’re not a trained medical professional, and you don’t know what’s missing, so you can assume the worst when the fix is something as easy as some supplements in winter and going outside in a t-shirt more when the temperature allows it.

I can understand that going to a doctor’s office might be daunting. Making a phone call is often scary enough, and it’s far too easy to feel like an imposition when doctors are only given 10 minute slots. Take deep breaths, and remember that you are just as entitled to the same level of care as anybody else – if something is negatively impacting your life, then asking for help to sort it out does not make you weak, or a burden, or anything of the sort. Doctors want to help you, and if you walk into your appointment downplaying your symptoms because technically they could be worse, then you’re not making it easy for them, and you’re not going to get the help you deserve. If you get a bad doctor – like the one who recently told me that my only options were to continue feeling like I’d died and been partially reanimated or to drop out of a degree which I have worked really hard to get into and which I adore – then ask for another one! Women are less likely to be taken seriously by male doctors, so, ladies, by all means ask for a female doctor – it’s your legal right.

Now, just to be clear, I am not telling you to run to your doctor every time you cough. Nor am I saying to just ignore your symptoms – I’m telling you that Google shouldn’t be your first resource. If you’ve got a headache and a blocked nose and a cough then it’s probably a cold, and if it hasn’t gone away in a week then go and see a doctor. If you’re headache doesn’t go away after you’ve drunk a whole bunch of water, gone for a walk and had a nap, maybe call NHS 24. If your foot turns purple to and swells up like a balloon, go to A&E.

Cyberchondia is real, and it can be scary. But for as long as you stay calm and act as rationally as you can, I’m sure you’ll be just fine. If in doubt, call the NHS, and never – ever – google your symptoms.

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