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Overcoming Fears & Phobias

By Amalah

Photo by cursedthing

Hi Amy,
I have a problem I hope you can shed a little light on for me.
I have a completely irrational fear of doctors. I go to the doctor on a regular basis despite this, but for at least a day beforehand, I am wracked with fear. No one has ever treated me poorly or inappropriately or even given me any sort of really bad news. My blood pressure goes up, my heart races, and I get a massive stomach ache.
Do you or any of your readers have any tricks for overcoming this? I don’t like my reactions, and I end up feeling foolish afterward. I’d appreciate any sort of help you might be able to give me.
Thanks a million,

Well, first, I want to commend you for continuing to go to the doctor on a regular basis in spite of your fear. Which actually, I think, sounds more like a full-on phobia. Iatraphobia, to be exact, which is indeed a common social phobia — it’s the fear or going to the doctor or just doctors in general.
Phobias are different than your run-of-the-mill generalized anxiety problems. Phobias are specific, persistent and excessive. The desire to avoid the object of your fear is overwhelming, and that’s where a phobia like yours CAN be quite serious, since it often causes people to NOT see the doctor and delay getting life-saving diagnoses and treatments. Thus, my earlier commending. You may feel foolish after suffering from your symptoms, but you are not letting them control you or keep you from taking care of your health. So instead of feeling silly…pat yourself on the back for ACTUALLY being incredibly strong. So there!
I’m saying all this as a fellow phobia-sufferer. I’m — don’t laugh — scared of volcanoes. Terrified of ’em. My heart rate jumps and my breath gets shallow just thinking about, say, taking a vacation to Hawaii, or viewing pictures of video of an eruption. Watching a documentary about Pompeii is, for me, the equivalent of riding a terrifying roller coaster, or watching a really hardcore horror movie. And I’m not alone! Like your fear, it has a name and theories behind it and everything. Ifest√≠ophobia.
Like most phobias, mine developed in childhood, after watching an episode of Reading Rainbow about volcanoes. (And you say YOU feel foolish? Try blaming a panic attack on LeVar Burton.) The footage of an erupting volcano on that show scared my five-year-old self beyond belief — it conflated my childish fears of damnation and hellfire with an unpredictable natural disaster that underscored my still-developing sense that the world was unsafe. And the book (Hill of Fire, about the Paricutin volcano) left me convinced that a volcano was going to sprout up in my backyard, under my house, on the playground while I was stuck on the swings…you get the idea.
Usually, we outgrow these fears, like fears of the dark or thunder. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes — like you — we’re even at a loss to where the fear developed in the first place. From reading just a little bit about Iatrophobia, a few of the popular causes/sources (besides an early traumatic experience, which it sounds like you never had) are:
1) a fear of how doctors’ offices smell — that “medicine-y” sterile smell can remind you of hospitals, which you may associate with death and disease,
2) a general intimidation of emotionally-unavailable doctors, or a fear of not expressing yourself well, resulting in your concerns not being taken seriously — or misinterpreted and being pegged as “crazy,”
3) a fear of bad news, negative diagnoses, of a cold actually being pneumonia, etc.
4) being afraid of catching germs or illness simply by being in the office,
5) a simple fear of the procedures that might take place: shots, tests, anything physically uncomfortable.
Maybe you’ve never gotten really bad news, but someone you love has. Or maybe there’s an old, buried memory of a bad blood-draw from when you were little, or throwing up in a waiting room thanks to an overwhelmingly bad smell when you were already suffering from the stomach flu. Or maybe this is truly just one of those things you’ve developed a tic about, for no real reason at all.
The best thing to do is recognize that it IS a phobia, not just some weird, embarrassing thing that happens to you. Keep seeing the doctor — don’t let it rule you. Talk to the doctor about your level of anxiety, or maybe a therapist or psychologist, if they seem less threatening to you. (Many therapists’ offices are more homey than clinical, and without a white coat in sight.) Don’t dwell on it or spend excessive amounts of time thinking about it — hard to do, I know, since you’ll probably want to research it and inform yourself, but try to view it as a passive thing, something akin to a mole you need to keep an eye on — and not something all-consuming that you have no control over.
When I was in the grips of regular anxiety attacks my therapist told me to stop “fighting” the attacks so hard, or trying to will myself to STOP THEM, which would eventually trigger a panicked flight-or-fight response. Instead, I would mentally acknowledge that, “oh yes, there it is.” and visualize the anxiety sort of flowing over and through and out of me, like an invisible wave of water. Very weird-sounding, but it was a mental exercise that helped me a LOT. You could try something similar on the day before your appointment, deep breathing, journaling — or maybe schedule a massage or a yoga class. Here’s a list of other Iatrophobia-specific tips for coping. And exercise is VERY good for fighting anxiety, no matter what the source — it will help you put that nervous energy to better use, while also doing something good for your health and body, which MIGHT lesson some of your fears that the doctor is going to give you bad news.


Published June 11, 2009. Last updated June 11, 2009.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Gretchen

    June 12, 2009 at 11:28 am

    A small meditation trick that can help with anxiety of any kind is imagining yourself in a shower (or waterfall) and pay attention to the water rolling down off your body.
    The key here is to do this little imagining when you don’t have anxiety first. Practice it a couple times a day or once a day, whatever works for you. Then when you are feeling anxious you have a history of knowing what it feels like and you will be more successful during the actual anxiety.

  • Linda

    June 12, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    My therapist recommends something similar to Amy’s, except without the visualization. Basically, rather than fight off whatever causes a panic attack (in my case it’s social or relationship situations), *recognize* it. So if you get panicky at the doctor’s front desk, all you do is think, “Oh, I’m scared because of [whatever],” and you *let* the feeling happen. It sounds dumb, but if you learn to ride out the fear it will start going away sooner‚Äîeventually not even manifesting at all! It works, I swear.

  • Marnie

    June 12, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Mine is sharks, thanks to my babysitter letting me watch “Jaws” on HBO when I was about 6. You would think that wouldn’t be such a problem living in Arizona. But our backyard pool…? I have SEEN documentaries where sharks have adapted to live in FRESH WATER. And I’m SURE the drain at the bottom of the pool is big enough, if a shark really wanted to get in. Or maybe someone dropped a shark in my pool overnight. And the shadows of the palm tree on the water in the deep end… (shudder)
    Feeling silly? check
    Truly believing I have to get out of the pool fast? check
    Thankfully, I seem to have been able to hide it from my daughter, who loves the water and swims like a fish.
    Thanks for the tips, Amy! I’ll give that a try next time I sense a mako stalking me from the 4-ft depths of our pebble-tec.

  • Olivia

    June 12, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    My own phobia is of heights. It doesn’t even have to be bridge or building, steep slopes have left me paralized with fear. Anyway, I don’t have any advice, but just want to offer support and say you don’t need to feel foolish. Nor Amy for your fear of volcanoes! I worked with a girl who had a severe phobia of tumble weeds.

  • Mrs. CPA

    June 12, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    My aunt (who is like my mother) has this phobia. It has gotten so bad in recent years that she cannot even tell me that she has a doctor’s appointment until after it is over. Her skin breaks out, she smokes 400 cigarettes, etc. Her doctor, whom she was relatively comfortable with, has left town. Run off with no explanation.
    She is diabetic which has left her with poor circulation and a disfigured foot and high blood pressure. She is an amazingly strong woman who was a single mother LONG before that was even a possibility of being acceptable, but she can’t go to the doctor. CAN NOT.
    So, instead of just looking up in the phone book and finding a new doctor like I would do, she has decided that she is not going to see anyone else. She is basically going to KILL HERSELF because she won’t have a prescription for her medicine because she is so terrified of going to the doctor unless we can convince her to go. She is deathly afraid that the doctor is going to touch her and start asking questions and want to know a medical history and want to look at her foot, and so on that she won’t go.
    Don’t let yourself get to this point. It’s a horrible feeling to know that someone you love is willing to die rather than get in a car, drive 20 minutes, sit in a waiting room and have a doctor come in and talk to them.

  • Shannon

    June 12, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    I have some similar medically-related fears (though yours sounds a bit more intense and focused), and I have found it really helps to fess up to your doctor that you’re scared. I usually wait until we’ve gotten through the pleasantries and say, “hey, by the way, I should tell you that I am pretty nervous about this — I have an irrational fear of doctors/dentists/pelvic exams/whatever…” The doctor usually says something comforting and makes an extra effort to explain what she is doing and check in on how I’m feeling throughout the appointment.
    I started doing this unintentionally when asked by a dentist why it had been so long since I’d had my teeth cleaned and I blurted out the truth. I’ve found it makes the appointments so much easier to endure that, over time, the pre-appointment dread has lessened.

  • lauralaylin

    June 12, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    I’m about to start going to a therapist for my phobia, which is flying. I know of someone else that was helped this way, and I have decided that I need to fix this problem somehow. I’m hoping that we’ll get to the root of it this way because I was fine until I was 22. Just a suggestion, not sure if it’ll work for you but it’s worth a shot.

  • TasterSpoon

    June 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    For my entire youth, it was ants. Ants! I was convinced they were going to swarm all over me and…I don’t know, tickle? My thought process never got that far.
    High places, definitely, like in state parks? I don’t care how many iron railings there are, I just know I’m going to slip out under them.
    But, only since adulthood, it’s been rats. I know that’s not uncommon, but I am pretty even keeled and rats make me completely flip out. I lived out in the boonies a few years ago and we had a rat problem and went from electronic plug-in things, to ‘humane’ plastic cubes (we caught one when my roommate was away and I carried the cubed rat half a mile away, freaking out the whole time, and threw the whole contraption in a bush. Probably not that humane after all, you’re supposed to open the little door so they can get out. Are they kidding?)…and finally to poison. Which must have worked because one day I came home while talking on the telephone, to see a dead rat in the middle of the living room floor. He was so dead, he might as well have had Xs where his eyes were. But as soon as I saw him I froze, dropped the phone and started SCREAMING. I couldn’t stop screaming. I couldn’t enter the house, I kept walking around and around the house and every time I peeked in the window and saw that rat on the floor I’d start screaming again. I’ve never lost it like that. The guy on the phone thought I’d been mugged, but I was in the boonies, so what could he do? I finally went to my neighbor/landlord to ask them to get rid of the rat. They gave me hot chocolate and cookies. And then I moved.

  • Darcey

    June 13, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    First off, Amalah – that very same episode of Reading Rainbow on Volcanoes at Kilauea was a major reason why I was so excited to go and visit the volcano on my trip last week to Hawaii. I was horribly sad that we didn’t get to see any actual lava – just sulfur gas wafting away from the caldera like a steam cloud. (Also, if it helps, Oahu, while not volcano-free, has two very dormant ones that formed the island and no signs, outside of the rock, that a volcano is even present.)
    And my phobia? Flying in a plane. And thunderstorms. The biggest problem was that my anxiety was compounded by the anxiety my mom had during the same things. I’ve found, now that I live on my own and don’t frequently travel with my parents, that those two things don’t freak me out like they used to — I find ways to distract myself during takeoff and landing (magazines, music, flying Delta with their in-flight TV and trivia). During thunderstorms, I do the similar, but also have a flashlight and phone nearby in case I get bothered even more.
    I find that the more I focus on my anxiety, the more I get trapped in that downward spiral of freak-out and panic. If I keep myself busy, there’s far less opportunity for that.

  • Jasmine

    June 14, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    I am terrified of c-ckr–ch-s. I cannot bear the word, I hate the sound of the word, and seeing them when I was a young child made me go white and sweat uncontrollably, speechless, and faint.
    I cannot walk past the supermarket aisle with all the pest control products because of all the HORRIBLE images of them! I feel my heart in my mouth when I see pictures…I shudder at holding a can of pesticide and cannot confront one alone!
    I don’t even eat shrimp or prawns or crabs or lobsters because of the insectile resemblance.
    Corpses scare the shit out of me, and seeing a bug in Jodie Foster’s mouth in the adverts for Silence of the Lambs forever scarred my imagination by giving me this feeling of what one would feel like in my mouth.

  • Bethany

    June 15, 2009 at 10:47 am

    I am so happy someone else is afraid of sharks in pools. I like to swim but if I can’t see the entire pool I flash back to a bugs bunny ep where a shark was waiting in a cage attached to the pool and was let out to chase/attack whoever was chasing Bugs.
    I told one friend this when she asked why I had bolted from a pool for no obvious reason and she just looked at me like I was nuts.
    I am so relieved right now.
    I also thought the dolphins would attack when I was swimming in Virginia Beach as a kid, but that’s probably not related…

  • Jackie

    June 15, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    I strongly recommend cognitive behavioral therapy to anyone who finds that phobias and/or anxiety are getting in the way of life! I had a very deep fear of vomiting (emetophobia – there truly is a name for everything) and it was keeping me from starting a family, because I was so terrified of morning sickness and vomiting during labor and delivery. Not only that, but I was afraid to have a drink (hangovers) or socialize with people who drink, afraid of the subway (hello, I live in NYC), afraid of amusement park rides…basically, afraid of life.
    I did a lot of CBT work, and maybe most people wouldn’t have to spend as much time on it as I did, but the underlying principle is much like what other people are saying here: acknowledge what you’re feeling, let it wash over you without fighting it, and notice that nothing truly bad is happening – you’re surviving, each and every time.
    I can’t say I’m never afraid, but I have an 8-month-old son now, and that’s more than I had 3 years ago. Pick up The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns – it has some really helpful writing exercises that my therapist and I used.