No one ever said that going to the doctor was a fun way to spend time. Between fitting an appointment into your schedule, waiting around in an exam room, and navigating the ins and outs of your insurance, a medical visit can be a hassle even under the best of circumstances.
But for some, doctor’s appointments are more than just an inconvenience. A number of people have extreme anxiety about going to the doctor.
The fear of doctors, known as iatrophobia, is often strong enough to provoke “white coat syndrome,” in which normally healthy blood pressure soars in the presence of a medical professional.
Experts estimate that 15 to 30 percent of people whose blood pressure appears high in a medical setting experience this syndrome — myself included.
Though I’m a healthy 30-something (a nutritionist and competitive runner with no pre-existing conditions) my fear of the doctor’s office never fails. Every time I go to the doctor, my vital signs make me look like a heart attack waiting to happen.
For me, this temporary terror stems from medical trauma from my past. Years ago, suffering from a mysterious condition no one could seem to diagnose, I was passed around from doctor to doctor.
During that time, many doctors spent very little time trying to get to the bottom of my health problems — and some outright dismissed me.
Ever since, I’ve dreaded placing myself under medical care and harbor fears of misdiagnosis.
While my story is unfortunately not all that uncommon, there are plenty of other reasons people get anxious about visiting a physician.
In an effort to understand more about this pervasive issue, I took to social media to ask others about their experiences.
Like me, many pointed to negative incidents in the past as the reason for their anxiety around doctors, from not being heard to receiving the wrong treatment.
“I worry that doctors will brush off my concerns,” reports Jessica Brown, who experienced narcolepsy for six years before a doctor took her symptoms seriously.
Says Cherise Benton, “Two separate doctors in two separate facilities read aloud off my chart that I’m allergic to sulfa and went ahead and prescribed it to me.” Benton landed in the ER after dangerous allergic reactions to her prescriptions.
Sadly, some folks also face fears based on statistics about the level of care people in their demographic receive.
“As a black woman in America, I often worry that I won’t have my medical concerns listened to fully, or that I may be given a substandard level of care because of implicit bias,” says Adélé Abiola.
Another common thread among respondents was a feeling of powerlessness.
Those in the white coats hold our medical fate in their hands while we, the non-professionals, await their expertise.
“They know this secret about you that could change your life,” says Jennifer Graves, referring to the acute unease of waiting on test results.
And when it comes to our health, the stakes are often extremely high.
Nikki Pantoja, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer in her 20s, describes the inherent anxiety of her treatment: “I was literally relying on these people to keep me alive.”
With so much on the line, it’s not surprising that tensions can run high in our interactions with medical professionals.
Regardless of the causes that underlie our fears of visiting the doctor, the good news is that we can take action to mitigate our anxiety.
In an environment where we often feel powerless, it’s helpful to remember that our own emotional response is one thing we can control.
1. Schedule at a good time of the day or week
When scheduling a time to see your doc, consider the ebbs and flows of your own stress levels throughout the day or week.
For example, if you tend toward anxiety in the morning, it may not be worth taking that 8 a.m. appointment just because it’s open. Schedule an afternoon appointment instead.
2. Take a friend or family member with you
Bringing along a supportive family member or friend to an appointment eases anxiety in a number of ways.
Not only can a loved one serve as a comforting presence (and distract you from your fears with friendly conversation), they offer another pair of eyes and ears to advocate for your care or catch important details you might miss in your stressed-out state.
3. Control your breath
Under stress, although we may not be conscious of it, breathing becomes shorter and shallower, perpetuating the anxiety cycle. Invoke the relaxation response in the exam room with a breathing exercise.
Perhaps you try out the 4-7-8 technique (inhaling to the count of four, holding the breath for a count of seven, exhaling for a count of eight) or simply focus on filling your belly — not just your chest — with each inhalation.
4. Try self-hypnosis
If your doctor’s office is like most, you’ll probably have plenty of time while you wait to take your relaxation even deeper.
Harness your attention and engage your senses with a calming self-hypnosis practice.
5. Mentally prepare ahead
Coping with medical anxiety isn’t necessarily limited to your time in the office. Prior to an appointment, set yourself up for emotional success with a bit of mindfulness meditation.
Specifically, try meditating on positive affirmations related to your concerns.
“I am the keeper of my own health” might be your mantra if you feel too much at your doctor’s mercy, or “I am at peace no matter what” if you fear a scary diagnosis.
6. Be honest about your anxiety
You’ve made a doctor’s appointment to talk about the state of your health — and mental health is a part of that picture. A good practitioner wants to know how you’re feeling, and how it affects you when you’re in their presence.
Being honest about your worries promotes a better relationship with your doctor, which will only lead to less anxiety and better care.
Plus, simply coming clean about how you’re feeling can break the tension and bring stress back to a manageable level.
7. Have your vitals taken last
If white coat syndrome makes your pulse race and your blood pressure soar, ask to have your vitals taken at the end of your visit.
Headed out the door with your health concerns addressed, you’re much more likely to feel at ease than during the anticipation of first seeing the doctor.
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.