The Body

Don't Panic! Worrying about your health can trigger real symptoms

Your mom always told you that worrying would make the shot worse, and now research confirms that some things really do hurt more if you think they will.

A study published recently in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research tested whether watching a video that warned about the negative health effects of electromagnetic fields would influence whether people developed actual symptoms. More than half the test subjects reported strange symptoms like headaches and tingling when they were told they were being exposed to a Wi-Fi signal—even though they actually weren’t. Participants who watched the scary video (versus a neutral video) were much more likely to feel the effects of “exposure.”

The findings confirm the power of placebo’s dark cousin, “nocebo”—in which a person’s negative expectations about a health situation can lead to real-life symptoms. “If someone expects adverse health effects, it’s very likely they will focus more on the body and notice sensations that might be falsely attributed to electromagnetic fields,” says study coauthor Michael Witthöft of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany.

This phenomenon is actually quite common. “How people interpret the meaning of a situation depends a lot on the information they have at the moment,” says Dr. Arthur Barsky, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Hearing about a link between cell phones and brain cancer, for instance, will probably make that headache you typically ignore seem a lot more significant, along with the fact that “the more you concentrate on a symptom, the more intense it seems,” he says.

Wondering how you can stay informed about the latest health findings while avoiding excessive or misguided worry? Barsky offers these tips:

If you notice symptoms after hearing media reports about health conditions, think back to whether you’ve had those symptoms before and whether they went away on their own.

If you just can’t resist researching symptoms and medical conditions online, stick with credible sources (think the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, or Harvard University) to avoid fear-mongering.

If you tend to get sucked into lengthy online searches, set limits on how often and how long you search.

If searching is making you more anxious rather than helping, it’s time to stop and see a doctor for more information.