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Do you diagnose yourself? If so, how?

For many of my clients the process of diagnosing themselves and others involves a quick Google search and a couple of minutes looking at WebMD or the Mayo Clinic’s Symptom check lists. For others, self-diagnosis may occur after speaking with friends who have been formally diagnosed (i.e., diagnosed by a mental health professional) or who also diagnose themselves.

Unfortunately, self-diagnosis can lead to great confusion, fear, and uncertainty. A former 19-year-old client of mine believed she was severely depressed for years after reading the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a manual used by mental health professionals to communicate about certain disorders. After meeting with a medical doctor at the age of 35, to her surprise, she was not depressed but suffering from an autoimmune deficiency. Not only did she lose years she could have used treating her medical condition, but she also confused her family. This article will discuss the topic of self-diagnosis and reasons why we should all avoid self-diagnosis.

Self-diagnosis is the process of diagnosing yourself or someone you know. It is also the process of identifying multiple symptoms that seem to match the symptoms you or someone you know are having. Some of the things client’s tend to do when diagnosing themselves include:

  1. Enhancing the “worry factor”: Diagnosing yourself can be daunting. With all of the diagnoses and medical terms all around us, it is very easy for us to look up a bunch of symptoms online and receive a self-diagnosis.

    Unfortunately, we’re not medical doctors and for those, such as myself, who works in the field of mental health, I can tell you that we don’t have a concrete way of diagnosis and we certainly hit and miss. If you are self-diagnosing at home, you will certainly find symptoms and conditions that are not only depression but potentially worrisome.

    For example, say your mother or father is experiencing pain in his or her left arm, headaches, muscle strain, dizziness, and blurred vision, you might self-diagnose your loved one is dealing with a increased levels of stress or even anxiety. But if you dig a little deeper and get a professional opinion, you might find that the above are symptoms of a heart attack.

  2. Confusing everything: Self-diagnosis is frustrating because you don’t have all of the information to correctly diagnose yourself. Also, for someone who is informing others that they have bipolar disorder without a formal diagnosis, it not only results in unnecessary stigma, but also helps you “play into” the symptoms of the disorder because now you know what bipolar disorder looks like. This is called a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” You think about something or hear someone else speak about bipolar disorder (prophesy) and so you begin to “act” like you do have bipolar disorder (fulfilling prophesy).
  3. Overlooking what is really going on: While focusing on the symptoms that the symptom checker, manual, book, online article, etc, you don’t and won’t have enough space in your brain or enough internal stamina to find information on your real diagnosis. Instead of going to a doctor or therapist with your symptoms to obtain a more accurate view of your symptoms, your real symptoms are being ignored and possibly getting worse.
  4. Causing emotional distress: A diagnosis is difficult to receive, especially if that condition involves hallucinations, delusions, hours of intensive therapy and medication management, or substance abuse. Many of us would rather hide, isolate, and ignore it, primarily because of the related stigma. But self-diagnosing can result in unnecessary emotional distress that could result in depression or anxiety. I once counseled a 15-year-old teen who believed that she was bulimic. No matter how hard I attempted to dissuade her to think differently, she believed what she believed because she decided to find a “symptom checker” and diagnose herself. She eventually saw a therapist at a clinic that specializes in eating disorders and recognized that her emotional distress occurred because of her fear of having an eating disorder.
  5. Relying too much on symptom checkers: You should only use symptom checkers as a last resort or guide. Symptom checkers can be helpful if you want to ensure you are educated before seeing a mental health professional. Perhaps your physical symptoms are depression or anxiety and the symptom checker provides a template to help you adequately discuss your symptoms. You certainly should not totally avoid symptom checkers but you want to be sure to use them with wisdom and at a minimum.
  6. Believing the World Wide Web: Let’s face it, self-diagnosis online can be dangerous. While many of us can “diagnose” a minor cold, the flu, or even a mental health condition such as anxiety, we should be careful in assuming that symptoms are easy to identify, understand, and treat.

    In cases involving psychotic symptoms, depressed mood, or very hyperactive and inattentive behaviors, it is important to avoid self-diagnosing as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia as depressed mood, psychotic symptoms, and hyperactivity can result from a medical condition, substance abuse, or medication. Even more, the Internet is a big and scary place! Anyone can post information online and sometimes the information can really look and sound believable. Choose websites wisely as you research symptoms.

So what about you? Do you self-diagnose or know someone who does? Has it ever worked? Why or why not?

As always, I enjoy reading your comments and connecting with our community of readers. Feel free to share your experiences here.

I wish you well.

References

Harvard Gazette. (2015). Self-diagnosis on the Internet is not always good practice. Science & Health. Retrieved online 2/10/2016 from, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/07/self-diagnosis-on-internet-not-good-practice/. 

PsychologyToday. (2010). The dangers of self-diagnosis: How self-diagnosis can lead you down the wrong path. Retrieved online 2/10/2016 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/debunking-myths-the-mind/201005/the-dangers-self-diagnosis.