When I was five years old, my mom took my little sister and me to the pediatrician so I could get my kindergarten vaccines. I remember shivering as we sat in the waiting room, anticipating the inevitable. The antiseptic scent was overpowering, making me even more anxious. I knew that at any second my name would be called, we’d be ushered into an exam room, and after a physical, the needles would come in on a silver tray. Despite my mom promising us an ice-cream reward after I was finished, my anxiety was out of control. My heart was racing, I felt light-headed, and all I could think about was that getting a few vaccines would be the worst thing that could ever happen to me.
That’s what medical anxiety does. It lies with amplified fears. The needles had to have been small, but to five-year-old me, they were the size of swords. You’d think that with time and experience, medical anxiety would resolve itself. However, for me, the opposite was true. To this day, it takes all I have to attend any type of medical appointment and not flee the second the nurse calls my name. Medical anxiety, or what some call “white coat syndrome,” is legitimately awful, but I have learned some helpful ways to cope with it.
Let’s get this out of the way. Those of us who struggle to attend medical appointments cannot just take a chill pill or a few deep breaths. We can’t calm ourselves down on command. Our brains are telling us that we are in danger, sounding every alarm. Our muscles are tense, we feel jittery (like we’ve had way too much coffee), and we are praying that the appointment will be over with as soon as possible. Being responsible humans, we put on a brave face and show up, our jaw clenched the entire time.
Sometimes our anxiety stems from bad experiences. For me, I had two major medical events that have led to my white coat syndrome going from bad to worse. The first was when I got a stomach virus and was ill for a year and a half afterward. I attended close to twenty appointments with five different medical professionals, desperately trying to find out why I was losing weight, was always hungry and thirsty, experienced numbness and even bed wetting, and felt increasingly depressed. I was misdiagnosed with anorexia and told I was a hypochondriac. Everything changed the day my husband took me to the ER and I found out I was dying of undiagnosed type 1 diabetes. The second situation arrived eleven years later when my breast lump turned out to be early-stage breast cancer. I had many medical appointments and a mastectomy.
I’ve been purposefully managing my medical anxiety over the past few years. With post-traumatic growth (that’s exposures to appointments after medically traumatic experiences) and a great therapist, I’m a work in progress. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Prepare yourself ahead of the appointment.
My worst anxiety occurs before the appointment, because once I’m there, I know there’s no turning back. Before the appointment, I make a list of questions to ask the doctor. This reminds me that I have a voice in the experience and provides a sense of control. I also familiarize myself with the doctor and facility if they are new to me by looking both up online. Another tip is to call the facility ahead of time and ask any questions you might have about their procedures, policies, and how long they anticipate the first appointment taking. Also, if possible, fill out any paperwork ahead of time, when you feel less pressure to remember necessary information.
Know what comforts you.
Think about when you have a day off. What do you wear? What keeps you comfortable? When we aren’t going anywhere, I’m wearing workout clothes, my hair is in a top-knot, and I skip makeup. I prefer to feel as light and clean as possible, not encumbered by extras. If you think it will bring you comfort, show up to your appointment in the same way. You aren’t meeting with royalty here, and your job isn’t to impress the doctor with your manicure or ensemble. Keep in mind that if there’s any testing that will be done on that same day, to be dressed in a way that’s practical. Also, take something to do, such as a light-hearted book to read or a funny podcast to listen to, because medical facilities are notorious for running behind schedule, which can amplify your anxiety.
Take a support person.
If at all possible, taking a support person with you can be helpful in easing your medical anxiety. First, that person can serve as a listening ear and chime in with questions. Second, your support person can help distract you and comfort you when your anxiety begins to climb. Having a literal hand to hold or shoulder to lean on can help you feel some ease that you wouldn’t experience otherwise. For me, it’s also helpful if I’m not driving myself to and from an appointment. I’d rather chill by looking out the window and being in charge of the music. (My mom had it right. Give yourself a reward afterward, for a job well done. Planning a post-appointment treat will give you something to look forward to.)
Speak up for yourself.
Your appointment is yours. It is perfectly within your right to ask questions, disagree, and explore your options. If you aren’t comfortable with the recommended course of action, say so. If you need more information, ask for it. You can also be direct by telling the medical professional that you have medical anxiety, and you may need more time to make your decisions. Also, don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion. A great doctor will not take issue with you considering the opinion and experience of another medical professional.
Ask for information to take with you.
As the appointment winds down, ask for printouts of anything discussed and recommended. Having physical paperwork to examine later means you won’t be bogged down by electronic systems or looking up your medical issues on the internet. An anxious brain sometimes has difficulty remembering information, so having that information to review later can be helpful. Be sure to ask how you contact the doctor with follow-up questions.
Of course, ongoing medical anxiety that is based on medically traumatic experiences isn’t something you can just move past or get over by following a few tips. It’s important to work through trauma in a safe, therapeutic environment with a trained professional. Good job taking care of yourself, and cheers to a less-anxious next appointment!