Last Update: June 2, 2023
We’ve all been there: upon noticing a mysterious spot or symptom, we head straight to Google, and within minutes we’ve convinced ourselves we’re suffering from a rare and serious illness.
For anyone who’s kept themselves awake at night worrying about everything that could possibly be wrong with them, health journalist Casey Gueren has written the book to put your mind at ease: “It’s Probably Nothing: The Stress-Less Guide to Dealing with Health Anxiety, Wellness Fads, and Overhyped Headlines.” We talked to Gueren about how to stay up on all the latest in health and wellbeing without sacrificing our sanity.
It was during Gueren’s tenure as Health Editor at Buzzfeed that she learned what health anxiety is—or, more accurately, what it isn’t. “I was editing a piece on being a hypochondriac and I wanted to make sure it was the right terminology. When I did some digging I realized it wasn’t.”
Hypochondriasis as a condition, Gueren tells us, was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013 and replaced with two new conditions: illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder. With illness anxiety disorder, Gueren explains, a person is focused on having or getting a serious illness, whether or not symptoms are present. Somatic symptom disorder, on the other hand, is what happens when a person gets hyper-attuned to a specific symptom they’re experiencing.
What these two offshoots of hypochondriasis have in common is their main symptom: health anxiety, or the obsessive and pervasive sense that something is wrong with you. From the experts she spoke to for her book, Gueren learned that having general anxiety may make someone more susceptible to this type of anxiety. Even if you don’t, the seemingly endless stream of health information the average person receives on a daily basis is enough to stress anyone out.
If health anxiety is the problem, health literacy might be the solution. “Health literacy refers to our ability to access, understand, and act on the health information we’re getting on a day-to-day basis,” Gueren explains. Particularly for people who are focused on living a healthy lifestyle, there’s a lot of information to take in, and it can be hard to know what’s legit and who to trust.
From broad claims about “good” and “bad” foods to sweeping generalizations about prescription drugs, “these things catch on because there’s an element of fear,” Gueren says. “We’re validly concerned about what we’re putting in our bodies, but that fear can overtake the really boring aspect of doing the research.”
Individuals can and should be discerning about the health information they receive, but Gueren feels the burden shouldn’t fall entirely on the public. “Improving health literacy isn’t just about making people better at understanding the information. It’s also about making sure the information itself is accessible, inclusive, conversational, and something we know what to do with.”
One of the most important jobs of an editor is to poke holes in a story to find its weaknesses, and that means asking questions. Gueren, who has done stints at Women’s Health, Self and other publications, says her work as a journalist taught her the right questions to ask:
What (or who) is the source of the information? When you encounter health information, look at who it’s coming from, Gueren advises. “What are their credentials to speak on this specific topic? A good rule of thumb is, if someone is board certified, they probably have ongoing education and licensing that makes them uniquely qualified to diagnose, treat, and manage that condition.”
Does it sound too easy? If that miracle cure you saw on TikTok seems too good to be true, it probably is. “The trends that make these big promises without asking for much of your life…I understand the appeal, but it’s about being realistic,” Gueren says. Take the celery juice craze, for example. “There’s a clear difference between saying ‘drink celery juice in the morning because it gives you some hydration and veggies’ and ‘drink celery juice because it’s going to detox your liver’,” she says. “We don’t have evidence to back that up.”
Does it make you feel bad? Any time the messaging around a product or piece of information makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong, or when it introduces a new concern you didn’t know you needed to worry about, be on alert, Gueren says. The best person to tell you whether you actually have a true health problem that needs to be fixed is your healthcare professional.
…When you see medical advice in your social media feed:
“There are going to be influencers who have a much bigger audience and who reach way more people than our major medical organizations,” Gueren says—and in some cases, that can lead to the spread of misinformation. If you’re actively seeking details about a specific health condition, Gueren recommends first going to the medical organization based on the topic (for example, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for women’s health or the American Academy of Pediatrics for children’s health), adding that The Atlantic has a solid reputation when it comes to health reporting.
…When you’re targeted with an ad for a popular product that makes bold health claims:
“Wellness trends can become harmful if they deter you from seeking out better treatments,” Gueren says. She advises resisting the temptation of one-size-fits-all wellness advice and instead, doing what you know works for you. (Gueren herself is a fan of simple, evidence-based habits like quality sleep, regular exercise, and getting enough vegetables in your diet.) And when in doubt, always talk to your healthcare provider.
…When you find yourself spending hours anxiously Googling every bump/rash/headache:
“Listen to your body” is a common refrain in the world of health and wellness. “We absolutely deserve to be taken seriously when we talk about our symptoms,” Gueren says, “but also, sometimes, your body can be messing with you.”
Obviously, no one wants to be told what they’re feeling is all in their head, so if you’re worried about something, talk to your healthcare provider about it. But if you often find yourself spiraling upon reading an alarming headline or watching something on social media, Gueren recommends taking a pause, then seeing if the thing you’re worried about is still bothering you in 24 hours.
While Gueren is reasonably skeptical about a lot of health and wellness fads, there’s one recent trend that pleasantly surprised her: the one about embracing low-impact exercise like walking, along with a general emphasis on slowing down. “To me, it was refreshing to see that culture shift to doing less instead of more. Doing things for your health doesn’t always have to be an expensive, time-consuming, energy-sucking thing.”
Casey Gueren is the author of “It’s Probably Nothing: The Stress-Less Guide to Dealing with Health Anxiety, Wellness Fads, and Overhyped Headlines” and the Editorial Director of the mental health platform Wondermind.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.
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