When you were a child, maybe you tried everything you could to get out of going to the doctor because you didn’t want to get a shot. Now, as an adult, you may still harbor anxiety about that encounter, even when you know you should go.
The scientific name for fear of seeing doctors is iatrophobia. A recent study found that people avoid seeking medical care even when their intuition tells them they should go. This applies to people with major medical problems and those who only have symptoms.
Study participants reported that one of the main factors preventing them from seeking care was fear. This included the fear of receiving bad news, such as a new medical diagnosis or information about an already diagnosed condition. Embarrassment and guilt about disclosing an unhealthy behavior also played a part.
In his role with Lahey Health Behavioral Health Services as director of day treatment programs for adults with mental health conditions, Christopher Donahue, LICSW sees clients who feel the same way. His programs treat patients with mental disorders but also focus on treating the person as a whole. This means they also see clients who may have chronic physical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.
“Yes, it’s true that some people may avoid the doctor because of anxiety and the fear of what they may be told,” said Donahue. “They know that, yes, there may be bad news, but it’s something they’d rather not know about.”
Overcome Your Fear
Often, patients worry they aren’t being heard or they’re being judged when they visit the doctor, Donahue points out.
“Because visits can be short, they may feel that’s just too fast,” he said. “They may also feel intimidated. Often, they don’t report different types of symptoms and when asked how they’re doing, will simply respond with ‘I’m good.'”
To counter this trend, Donahue’s office reminds clients of their different appointments and even helps them make notes for discussion when they see their doctor. Donahue also knows clients with anxiety may be intimidated by going out into social situations in general.
“There can be issues of loss of self-confidence, low self-esteem and finding one’s true voice when it’s really needed,” he said. He also knows that when someone is afraid, taking the action that gives them fear is easier said than done.
Take Time for Self-Care
“Sometimes, people will come up to this building’s door and then walk away,” Donahue shared. “We hope they remember that seeing us, or seeing a doctor, is about their self-care — and that’s very important.” He also points out that worrying you might waste a doctor’s time isn’t a valid reason to avoid medical care.
“Your doctor is someone who wants to work with you — and not just tell you what to do,” he said. “Think of yourself as an important part of your own care team.”
We all occasionally feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, but seeing your doctor is time well-spent. An early diagnosis may mean there’s more time for treatment. That’s why it’s key not just to get care when something is seriously wrong but also to get regular checkups and follow through on routine screenings.
Fear and anxiety aren’t only factors behind iatrophobia. Some participants in the journal study said they avoid doctor visits because they didn’t want to be told to change their behavior, lose weight or reduce alcohol consumption. Some said they didn’t want to take medication if advised. Still others thought their conditions might improve or go away. Meanwhile, some don’t have appropriate insurance coverage or found finances to be a burden.
“Don’t let fear or other reasons keep you from seeing your doctor regularly,” said Donahue. “You can find a way. Seek professional help for your anxiety if it keeps you from doing the things you should to take the best care of yourself.”