Overcoming Fears & Phobias
Photo by cursedthing
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.