Feel anxious about going to the doctor? Here’s how to handle it

Written by Ellen Scott

Even routine doctor’s appointments can be anxiety-inducing, but we know it’s vital to get the healthcare we need. So how do we overcome our nerves? Dr Liza Morton shares some practical tips. 

It doesn’t matter what you’re going in for (a medication refill, a smear test, a cough that just won’t budge), going to a doctor’s appointment can be an anxiety-inducing experience. 

Some of us will find the act of entering a medical setting triggers health anxiety or brings back distressing memories of past experiences. Others will dread having to talk to a doctor about a symptom that feels uncomfortable or embarrassing. Or perhaps you fall into the catastrophising camp, where you feel like a doctor will inevitably give you some dramatic, life-altering diagnosis. 

Whatever the reason, medical anxiety is a very real thing, and it can have serious ramifications when it makes us endlessly put off getting medical attention. So it’s key that we learn to tackle it.

Dr Liza Morton is a chartered counselling psychologist who, due to a heart condition, spent a lot of time in hospitals growing up. As a result, she really understands how stressful going to the doctor can feel.

“Stress triggered by medical encounters, coined ‘white coat syndrome’, is common,” she tells Stylist. “Going to the doctor can understandably make you feel anxious, particularly if you have a chronic or serious health problem. Unfortunately, this anxiety can silence us, preventing us from asking important questions or taking in and remembering essential information.

“If this distress is overwhelming it can even lead to cancellation or avoidance of medical appointments. Learning how to manage feelings of anxiety is key to making the most of your appointment and looking after your health and wellbeing.”

How do we do that? Dr Morton offers some practical steps to take. 

Know that it’s OK to be anxious

Don’t beat yourself up for dreading going to the doctor – it’s more common than you might think. 

“It is important to appreciate that medical encounters are challenging and that it is understandable to feel anxious or upset,” Dr Morton says. “This doesn’t mean that you are not coping; it just means you are having a normal response to a tricky situation. Try to be compassionate to yourself.”

Plan something nice to do before and after your appointment

“It can help to plan something pleasant to do before and/or after your appointment. Reach out to loved ones to talk through your experience or do something that helps you feel more relaxed and safe,” notes Morton. 

Could you take yourself out for a nice lunch once the appointment is over? Is there a park nearby where you can sit and relax for a bit? Do you have a podcast that you can look forward to listening to on your way home?

Remember that you’re allowed to ask questions and flag issues

“Sometimes the nature of the doctor/nurse-patient relationship can make us feel disempowered and in the ‘patient role’,” Morton explains. “This can prevent us from asserting ourselves as we might in more comfortable situations. 

“As such, it can help to make a list of your questions beforehand and to make notes during the consultation. You may find it useful to ask your doctor, by contacting their medical secretary, what you can expect during your appointment in advance. It is useful to ask how to reach the medical team if needed if you have any additional questions or concerns after your appointment. If your doctor’s ‘bedside manner’ is contributing to your feelings, you might want to switch to a different doctor to see if their style helps to increase your sense of safety and trust. 

“Remember that you are an essential partner in your healthcare team, and it is vital that you are taken seriously. If you have had difficult medical experiences in the past that make your care more challenging or evoke strong distressing feelings, then you can let your healthcare team know about this. You can ask them to write this in your medical notes so that additional care, support and time are provided for any procedures you find particularly difficult, for example, having blood taken.”

Plan for the practical stuff

Feeling rushed and flustered or running late is not going to help lessen your nerves. 

“Try to plan going to your appointment beforehand to minimise stress on the day,” Dr Morton advises. “This will help you to ensure that there is enough time in your day, and that you have planned for travel time, parking, check in time and where you need to go.”

Bring something soothing for the waiting period

Dr Morton suggests: “Different things work for different people, depending on your interests. Chatting to others, knitting, reading, a fidget toy or playing a word game on your phone can help. You could also listen to relaxing music or relaxation exercises on your phone. If you find that you have been waiting for a long time, let the people on reception know in case you have been missed. Take a bottle of water and some snacks to make sure that you stay hydrated and nourished.”

Consider bringing a friend

“Social support is one of the most protective factors for our mental health and wellbeing,” Dr Morton notes. “During medical experiences, the soothing presence of a loved one has particular health benefits. As such, you may benefit from taking someone with you such as your partner, a family member or a trusted friend for support. They can also help you to remember any new care instructions or recommendations and this will give them a better understanding of what is going on for you.”

Remember why you’re doing this 

Always remember the ‘why’ of this uncomfortable experience. You’re going to this appointment to prioritise your health, to care for yourself, and that is a positive and responsible thing. 

“Staying on top of your recommended medical appointments is essential to maximise your overall health, contributing to a better quality of life,” says Dr Morton. “Often people will report feeling a sense of relief after their appointment is over, and sometimes recount that the anticipation leading up to the day was more difficult than the appointment itself.”

Dr Liza Morton is the co-author of new book Healing Hearts And Minds: A Holistic Approach To Coping Well With Congenital Heart Disease, with Tracy Livecchi, LCSW, published by Oxford University Press, New York.

Main image: Getty

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