What is Iatrophobia?
You’ve had intermittent sharp pain in your abdomen for 24 hours. The max dosage of Tylenol isn’t touching the pain. Though you haven’t checked your temperature, you’re certain that you have a fever. Nausea has set in, and you’re curled up on your bed praying for relief. A voice in the back of your mind is telling you to go to the hospital, to see a doctor, aka physician. But that thought is even more terrifying than the pain you’re in.
If the thought of seeing a doctor leaves you reeling with anxiety, you may be suffering from iatrophobia (pronounced [eye-a-trah-fo-bee-ah]). It’s not specified under the DSM-V but could fall under the diagnoses of F40.232 — Fear of Other Medical Care. It is also closely related to White Coat Syndrome & sometimes referred to as Latrophobia (which is a fear of doctors and hospitals).
Why Do People Have a Fear of Doctors?
Research shows that there are 5 major categories explaining why people are afraid of doctors:
Many people can pinpoint an exact experience that led to their fear of doctors. Perhaps it was a doctor they saw as a child who lacked empathy and a true ability to work with children. It’s possible during a visit they were given painful shots that were seared into memory. A strep test, uncomfortable examinations, or simply equating a doctor visit with illness can lead to anxiety and a fear of doctor appointments in general.
These traumatic situations can lead to an avoidance of physicians. The longer you avoid the object that you fear, the more anxiety you’ll experience when you must face it. The opening scenario clearly demonstrates fear and anxiety at the thought of seeing a doctor — even though it’s medically necessary.
My family has personally lived through their own bout of illnesses. My father has had many surgeries: getting his gallbladder & appendix removed as well as neck surgery & a knee replacement. Many other health complications have led him to weeklong stays in the hospital. To this day, the smell of a hospital brings up memories of visiting him in the hospital. If your anxiety is triggered more specifically around the thoughts of having surgery, you may have Tomophobia- [Fear of Surgery].
If you have experienced surgeries, have been in an accident, or have dealt with serious illnesses you may equate doctors with what you’ve experienced. You only see doctors when something is terribly wrong. The thought of an appointment can lead to a tailspin of emotions — what if I’m terribly sick again? What if my worst fears are coming true? You avoid the appointment because you can’t bear to relive the past.
The Wrong Doctor for You
In this study, numerous people reported a lack of rapport with their doctor. They felt that their physician did not communicate well, or left them feeling stupid and unintelligent. Some reported being berated or belittled for not following the advice they were given. Or they simply felt that their concerns went unheard & that their doctor wasn’t truly interested in their well-being.
Expertise is Not Enough
To become a licensed Physician you must go through extensive schooling & residency where you gain experience in multiple fields until you decide on a specialty. However — even with all that training — doctors are not beyond mistakes. If you’ve been misdiagnosed in the past it can leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Or you’ve heard horror stories of things gone wrong in surgeries or treatment. Whatever the case, you may have a general distrust and disbelief that your physician can accurately treat you.
The Fear of the Unknown
What if your ongoing symptoms have no explanation? What if you work up the courage to schedule an appointment only to be barraged with endless tests and theories, but never an explanation. Or, on the flipside, you imagine your doctor presenting you with the worst case scenario — you have cancer or another debilitating illness. In your mind, it’s better to leave it unknown than face the terrifying truth.
Perhaps how doctors are portrayed in television have influenced the way you think about the profession. Here are some notable T.V. doctors:
- House —A cranky cantankerous doctor who hates patients, but always magically pulls through with the correct diagnosis to save their lives. Also quite the comedic (pictured above).
- ER — One of the most popular medical dramas, it follows the lives of doctors and Nurses in a Chicago County Hospital — you see equal doses of the good, bad, and the ugly.
- Doogie Houser, M.D. — An oldie but goodie, Doogie Houser is a licensed physician, who also happens to be a teenager.
- Grey’s Anatomy — Another popular medical drama following residents and attending physicians juggling their professional and personal lives.
- Scrubs — This comedy follows the lives of doctors (and a janitor!) at Sacred Heart teaching hospital.
How to Overcome Your Fear of Doctors (Self-Help)
Here are 4 steps to getting over Iatrophobia:
- Do your research and choose a doctor that has the expertise and training that you would be comfortable with. Most clinic websites post photos of their doctors, along with their specialties, years of experience, where they were trained, and sometimes even their personal interests. If you schedule an appointment with your doctor of choice, and are underwhelmed or feel there will be no rapport, you have the right to schedule with someone else.
- If your past memories of an illness leave you avoiding your doctor remind yourself that your health comes first. Even if you are given bad news, it is better to know and seek treatment than to watch your health deteriorate. If you see a medical professional and come out on the other end with no explanation for your symptoms, your doctor can help you explore psychological reasons for your symptoms & refer you to specialists who can help.
- Break your conditioned response and stop avoiding your fear of doctors. Begin by scheduling an appointment with your doctor. Schedule it immediately in the morning so you don’t have time to overthink & allow yourself to be anxious. Before your appt. you can drive to the location of your clinic. Take some deep breaths in the parking lot and remind yourself this is for your health. Go a few minutes early to get any needed paperwork or insurance issues resolved. Bring something you enjoy to keep you distracted such as crossword puzzles or even a coloring book! Play a game on your phone. Distract yourself.
- If you find that scheduling an appointment is daunting, start with something simpler. Look at photos of doctors offices, waiting rooms, equipment used, etc. When you find yourself becoming anxious take some deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Do something calming. Remind yourself that it’s only images. Or you can watch a humorous show involving doctors, such as Scrubs.
What if My Child is Afraid of Doctors?
What can you do when your children are afraid of doctors? Follow these steps:
- Assure your child that it is okay to be afraid & that it’s a normal response. Find out why they are afraid — is it something specific, like getting a shot? Do they not like being poked and prodded? Finding out why they’re afraid will help you better calm their fears.
- If they’re afraid of the shot, have the nurse or physician administering it hide the needle. Distract your child as the shot is happening. “Remember when your sister pinched you? Yes? Remember how it stung for a second, but you didn’t cry and forgot about it a minute later? The shot will just be quick like that.” Before they know it, it’s just a quick prick, and then they get to pick out a fun band-aid.
- Doctor offices do their best to calm children and award them for pushing through their fear with fun bandaids, colorful rooms, and sometimes even candy. Help your child equate the visit with something fun such as time spent with you reading or playing a game in the waiting room. Do something they find rewarding after the doctor appointment.
- If your child is sick, remind them that seeing the doctor will lead to them feeling better. That they can get medicine that will help them.
- Reassure your child that you will be there every step of the way and that they will not be alone.
For more advanced treatment for iatrophobia, you can explore counseling. A therapist will meet with you and develop a personalized treatment plan based on your history and current concerns, then hold regular sessions to help you address any issues you are having. You can search online to find a qualified professional near you.
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