It’s normal to be afraid of the doctor. Here’s how to cope.
Going to the doctor, whether it’s to address a particular symptom or for preventative care, can be an anxiety-provoking situation, but it’s not the same kind of anxiety for everyone. For some, the prospect of going to the docto, can send us into an anxiety spiral, even resulting in panic attacks. Whether it’s the “What if they find something” that gets your blood pressure going, or a routine procedure, medical anxiety is super real, and common.
“Nowhere in life do I feel quite as disempowered as when I’m at the doctor’s,” E told me. “I regularly have panic attacks when I go, especially at the gynecologist.” The experience of not being able to make choices about her own care is what has triggered E’s own anxiety.
“I had a really bad experience once where simply asking a question about whether a procedure might be a good idea based on a family member’s recent diagnosis led directly to a specialist consultant and an invasive diagnostic procedure which led to a panic attack and lots of hostility on my part. As soon as I asked the question, the train already left the station.”
If you’ve ever dealt with anxiety, even in a limited context, you know that one of the least effective, and the most infuriating, things someone can say to you is “Calm down.” For J, who experiences anxiety at the gynecologist as a result of her family’s history of ovarian and vaginal cancer, trying to relax is complicated. Particularly, when J is in for an invasive procedure, like an transvaginal ultrasound, the anxiety becomes worse.
“The more anxious you are, the worse it will be, because of your muscles, So, reminding yourself over and over that you have to relax is not always super helpful. Neither is, “you better calm down otherwise they won’t find your cancer and you’ll die,'” explains J.
Andrea Batton, LCPC, of the Maryland Anxiety Treatment Center, stresses the importance of knowing specifically what your anxiety is about.
She suggests you ask yourself, is it a general fear of going to the doctor because you’re afraid you’ll get bad news? Or is it about a specific fear – getting blood drawn, for example?
She recommends therapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy, for folks whose fear of doctors is standing between them and their physical well being. CBT is directed at changing a person’s thinking around a particular issue, in order to change their behavior. CBT addresses what Batton calls “thinking traps,” like overestimating threats, catastrophizing (seeing something as far worse than it actually is), and thinking in terms of black and white (i.e. something is either perfect or worthless). A big part of CBT is self talk.
“Not reassuring yourself,” says Batton, “but calling out your thinking errors, appraising things rationally so your emotions are less volatile.” What are the odds something is actually wrong? What’s the real worst case scenario instead of the one your anxiety is leading you towards?
The source of Julia’s “doctor anxiety,” as she puts it, stems from a lack of control, and not knowing what might happen.
“For some reason, doctors often like to keep patients in the dark and not explain everything.” For this reason, she asks doctors and nurse practitioners to talk through the specific details of a procedure. “For me, the more information I have about what’s going on, the better I feel. Also, I watch many, many videos online of the procedure I’m going to have which is extremely helpful.”
E’s means of coping at the doctor involves reaching out to loved ones for support. She brought two friends with her to get a flu shot, and makes sure her mom is available to talk to her on the phone while she’s waiting. For J, getting a ride with someone she trusts is key, or, if no one who understands anxiety is available, she goes alone.
Lindsey Huttner, LCSW, a psychotherapist for anxiety disorders on Queens, NY, advises prepping ahead of time for the appointment.
“Organize your concerns when you are in a calm relaxed state if possible. Create time for yourself in a space that feels safe and soothing such as your favorite chair in your living room with relaxing music on in the background. Then thoughtfully make a list on your phone or paper of your specific concerns and questions for your doctor. You may need to use deep breathing while purposefully relaxing your muscles to avoid becoming triggered.”
While it might seem like a good idea to tell your doctor that you’re anxious (if they aren’t already aware), it won’t necessarily help things in the long term. “The reason you’re telling them you’re anxious is so you feel less anxious,” says Batton. “The more you try to fix it, the worse it gets. Allow your discomfort to be there, it will dissipate on its own.”
Finally, remember that doing something that makes you anxious and afraid is hard, so be kind to yourself. J takes herself out for ice cream after a particularly difficult appointment.