Medical phobia or just anxiety? How do I know?
We’ve all been there. A symptom arises and we have to go to the doctor to find out what is wrong. The anxiety kicks in. Some people will make the appointment right away and others will keep rescheduling it until they can’t avoid it any longer. Anxiety is characterized by worrying or apprehension. Everyone has anxiety about going to the doctor. We worry about what the doctor is going to say. What are they going to find? If they find something, what are they going to do about it? No one really wants to go through all the testing, or worse, medical procedures doctors may put us through to diagnose the symptoms. I wanted to address this now because of covid-19. Ignoring symptoms doesn’t seem like a good plan.
Anxiety in itself is not something that needs treatment unless it starts interfering with your life in some capacity. A medical phobia is a type of anxiety disorder. Medical phobia is the act of avoiding doctor appointments or procedures at all costs because of intense fear of going to the doctor or getting a medical procedure. People with anxiety can have strong bodily sensations which are intense and they feel very out of their control. Their heart might be racing, or they may feel sweating, nausea, fainting or dizzy. In children you might see tantrums, clinginess, and crying as signs of anxiety or a phobia. In order to avoid going through these sensations they avoid whatever is causing these symptoms. When the avoidance is affecting your life in some way such as your health, relationship or school/career then it’s time to get treatment.
If one of my client’s is avoiding treatment, I remind the client that often when the medical doctors find diseases early the prognosis is better. So, it is better to go to the doctor and find out than not find out until it’s too late. It is easier to treat anxiety the earlier the treatment is given also.
If someone is still apprehensive you can try these strategies.
You can ask to talk with their doctor or nurse practitioner for 5 min prior to going in for an appointment. During this conversation ask questions pertaining to your fears. Some questions to ask, on average how many tests or procedures will there be with my type of symptom. What happens after they find a diagnosis? Let them tell you about the appointment and what to expect. The patient can ask the doctor if they can come in and meet with the doctor prior to an official first visit. Is the doctor friendly? If you don’t have a good vibe on the phone from the office staff or doctor find a new doctor’s office. Ask other people for referrals. Make sure the doctor’s personality is nurturing and patient so you have a good experience.
You can travel to the doctor’s office several times without an appointment to desensitize to the idea of going to the doctor.
Let the doctor know you have a phobia. Ask yourself what you are most afraid of about going to the doctor and then let the doctor know. Practice self-care by making boundaries with the doctor. You have rights in the doctor’s office to protect yourself. If the doctor does something which is making you more anxious let them know your needs. If they are reading test results out loud and it triggers an anxiety response ask them to let you know the results after they read it to themselves. If they want to show you imaging and it triggers your anxiety you have every right to tell them you are not interested. Remember doctors are desensitized to medical issues so they forget it might trigger anxiety in someone else who doesn’t work in the medical field. I do this with my doctors so now they are use to it. One of my doctors said in response, in 20 years I’ve never had a patient ask me not to tell them about their report.” I didn’t need to hear all the medical information, I just needed to know if everything is fine or not. He knows now not to read the report to me. That is a good doctor, one that is listening to my needs in the moment.
More self-care techniques, do what makes you feel self-soothed and calm. Maybe you take time off before or after the appointment to reward yourself for going and recenter afterwards. Maybe you schedule time in before or after to exercise, center yourself, or get an energy session to help you release the stress from the appointment. Trying to be in the present moment to quiet the mind of ‘what if questions’ that are future oriented and create anxiety.
Do whatever helps you manage stress. For example bring a small “security” item like a blanket, a lap weighted blanket, or stuffed animal. Essential oils if you’ve used them before with no issues. Bring a friend or family member with you to the appointment to help you distract from the anxiety or feel their support. Sometimes when we are anxious we can’t remember clearly what the doctor said so another set of ears is helpful. Don’t forget whatever object you would like to bring to help you self-soothe.
Often people with medical phobias are afraid of therapists also so they do not get treatment. Another strategy is to start therapy and address the underlying anxiety and avoidant behaviors. There are a lot of treatment options. When you have a strong, nurturing therapeutic relationship with a therapist you gain support and ideas to feel calmer about going to the doctor.
If you are tired of avoiding going to the doctor and would like to feel calm before you go, counseling can get you there. My clients know I’m friendly and go above and beyond for my clients. I give a 15 minute free consultation phone or video call to discuss any of your fears and make sure we are a good fit. I can treat phobias in different ways with cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness training, grounding techniques, desensitization visualizations, play therapy, Comprehensive Energy Psychology or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or “tapping”) depending on the unique needs of the client. In the past, I have successfully treated children, teens and adults with doctor phobias including avoidance around blood work, vaccinations, procedures. Check out this Redbbok magazine article I was featured in for cataract awareness month. There are more ideas specifically around cataracts that can be used for any medical phobia in the article. For more information about counseling treatments or about Stacey Shapiro, LCSW, RPT-S, visit www.staceyshapiro.com.
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