The next time you go to the GYN, don’t panic – strategize.
How does visiting the gynecologist make you feel? Anxious? Empowered? Have you ever felt intimidated by the prospect of having to explain what’s going on in your body? Did you have a less than stellar experience with another provider, and you’re coping with the aftermath? Talking to your doctor can be intimidating, but getting your needs met can be easier than you think.
J, who dealt with chronic yeast infections for years, had to find a new doctor after her insurance provider changed. After several doctors pushed back against her documented history of anxiety and depression, she began treating the search for a doctor like an exercise. She interviewed each and asked them the same questions about their attitudes towards mental health.
“I learned that I really needed a female (cisgender) doctor. I needed to work with someone who had a vagina,” explains J. “I just couldn’t deal with men talking to me about what infections should feel like. I need a doctor who will be willing to review results under a microscope in addition to sending off to the lab. I need a doctor who takes my anxiety and my overall wellness seriously, but doesn’t treat me like a child.”
Via her search, J did find a provider with whom she was comfortable. “I knew I found the right doctor when I insisted on all of those things and she said, ‘Ok, you know your body, I believe that you are uncomfortable and stressed about this, let’s find a solution together.'”
Knowing what you need from a doctor is one thing, and asking for it is another.
‘A.’ leads workshops for medical students on how to conduct pelvic exams.
“Being specific is useful because providers are really stuck in their methods– they are often working on auto-pilot and need to be drawn out of it,” she says. “If you need your doctor to slow down, try something like, ‘Last time I was here, the doctor I saw didn’t tell me anything that was happening and some parts of the exam hurt – I don’t even know what parts because they didn’t tell me what was going on. Can you tell me before we start what you’re going to do, and while we are doing the exam just tell me what you are doing?'” Dr. Kyrin Dunston, a Georgia OBGYN, says no level of specificity is too great: “The speculum is pinching me on the right side and I need you to take it out out now.”
Acknowledge your nervousness and/or discomfort with touch – it’s an important part of getting comfortable with a doctor, as is gaining a familiarity with what equipment is being used during the exam so you know what’s what and what might be a source of pain. You can ask to see the speculum, and if it hurt the last time, you can ask that the provider use a different size. A. suggests requesting that your doctor tell you before they’re going to touch you, and stop and check in if you wince or clench. This might seem obvious, but saying something will remind your doctor to slow down, and also make you feel better about asserting your needs.
“It’s my job to meet my patients where they’re at,” says Dr. Candace Howe, a OBGYN in California. “As soon as a patient walks through the door, I’m examining them, reading their body language.”
While Howe urges her patients to be up front about any anxiety they might have around touch, and experiences they’re having with pain (it’s best to say something before the exam begins), being honest about how you’re taking care of yourself is also essential. For example, if you were prescribed medication, and then you looked at the side effects and decided not to take it, tell your doctor, instead of pretending that you’re taking it or vowing to start taking it when the appointment is over.
Being an active participant of your own health care means you don’t have to make excuses for how you feel. In other words, don’t apologize for your anxiety, your fear, your pain, or anything else about why or how you come to the doctor’s office. “Preface your concerns by staying what you would need and prefer, what you like and don’t like,” says Dr. Dunston. No explanation regarding why is necessary unless you want to explain. It’s up to you.”
Cover image courtesy of Getty Images