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The Real Reason That Going to the Doctor Gives You Anxiety

It's the fear of the unknown that is keeping you from making that appointment.
Image: A man escapes a syringe
Have you been running from that annual checkup?fandijki / Getty Images

There’s a dull ache on your left side that’s been there since last Tuesday. Actually, it’s probably gotten worse since then, despite the hot pads and over-the-counter pain meds. Still, you’d rather wax your entire body than schedule an appointment with a doctor to determine the cause. Now that you think about it, you’re probably overdue for a checkup, too. “Has it been three years or four since my last health exam?” you think to yourself. Anxious “what ifs” about your health start flooding your mind, and you begin typing symptoms into Google for an inevitably tragic self-diagnosis.

If you’ve experienced something similar, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a pretty common experience to feel reticent about going to the doctor, said Dr. Barbara Cox, a psychologist based in San Diego. She explained that while this fear has many triggers — including having iatrophobia, the medical name for fear of doctors that affects just 3 percent of the population — the primary culprit is anxiety triggered by a fear of getting bad news.

Only 3 percent of the population has a fear of doctors — the majority of anxiety is actually triggered by the fear of the unknown.

“Many people feel anxious because they fear the unknown, and they let their imagination run wild,” she says. “They may imagine a worst-case scenario, when in fact going for, say, an annual check-up is the best prevention.”

Dr. Marc Romano, a psychologist, nurse practitioner and assistant medical director at Delphi Behavioral Health, agreed.

“The main fear individuals have about going to the doctor is that the doctor will find something seriously wrong,” he says. “Individuals typically only go to their doctor when they are sick. Therefore, the anxiety people have when they go to the doctor becomes a conditioned response. The association between anxiety and doctors is one that becomes stronger and stronger each time a person has to go to the doctor.”

Breaking the Doctor-Anxiety Cycle

If your anxiety is centered upon a fear of the unknown and an imagination that takes you to the worst-case diagnosis, it’s that much more important to actually schedule an appointment.

“First and foremost, you must rule out that something is seriously wrong,” explains Dr. Romano. It’s not easy, but even if you don’t receive a peachy diagnosis, that doesn’t change the facts. It simply means you have a name for what ails you, and you can begin treating and reducing pain and discomfort.

“Doctors are like trainers; their job is to keep you as healthy and fit as possible to avoid health problems from arising.”

“Second, it’s important to go to the doctor to reduce one’s anxiety, since living with high anxiety can actually result in something seriously going wrong, such as high blood pressure,” he says. Yes, avoiding the doctor and stressing yourself out about the “what ifs” can actually make you sick.

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Regarding a routine checkup, seeing your doctor once a year (or whatever frequency is prescribed), means you’ll have a firmer handle on your health. These preventative exams are vital to your wellbeing since they help you avoid illness, and since they can help you lessen the severity of any pre-existing conditions, notes Dr. Cox.

Making the Visit Easier

Ready to schedule that doctor’s visit? Follow these expert tips to reduce your anxiety.

  • Acknowledge the anxiety, then let it go: “If you find yourself thinking about your doctor’s visit, acknowledge that and tell yourself it's normal to have anxiety, then focus your thoughts on something else less anxiety provoking,” advises Romano. He says that letting go of thoughts that trigger anxiety can be done by distracting yourself with things that bring you joy and keep you mentally engaged. Maybe that’s indulging in your favorite TV show, tackling that house project, hitting the gym or diving into a good book.
  • Don’t be Dr. Google: Googling your medical symptoms is a downward, anxiety-fueling spiral, and it’s nearly impossible to get off the ride once you’ve begun. Not only are the most extreme cases documented more frequently than benign cases, you’re also dealing with confirmation bias.“With modern technology, it is inevitable that individuals will look up their symptoms, but it is important that individuals do not jump to conclusions and do not play doctor,” says Romano. “Individuals often tend to think the worst, and it is important to keep your thoughts in check and identify those thoughts are irrational and replace them with more rational ones. Suspend any judgements or conclusions about health issues until there is objective data to either confirm or deny the presence of health problems.”
  • Do something relaxing before your visit: Cox encourages patients to do something relaxing just before their visit. For example, listening to soothing music while driving to the appointment, or completing a guided meditation in the parking lot. Even deep, steady breaths can slow your heart rate and help you feel more grounded and in control.
  • Calm and distract yourself in the waiting room: “There are many things that people can do while sitting in their doctor’s waiting room to distract their thoughts from those that may be related to the doctor’s visit and causing anxiety to ones that are more pleasant and that induce a feeling of calmness,” says Romano. “With modern devices, individuals can easily distract themselves from worrying thoughts by looking at their emails, going on social media sites, watching movies, scrolling through their pictures on their phones or listening to music.” Cox adds, “Some people who are especially anxious may bring a friend with them to keep them upbeat.”
  • Remind yourself that your doctor is on your side: “It is important to view your doctor as an ally in keeping you healthy by identifying problems before they get out of control,” says Romano. “Doctors are like trainers; their job is to keep you as healthy and fit as possible to avoid health problems from arising.” Communicate honestly with your doctor, who isn’t there to judge. Be straightforward about your medical symptoms and fears, and even mention that you feel anxiety about going to the doctor’s office in the first place. Your doctor will be guiding and reassuring throughout the process, and you will feel much more in control of your own health once you walk out the door — helping to ease the anxiety around your next appointment.

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