How to Overcome Your Irrational

Fear of Surgery [Tomophobia] 

By: Lisa Gabriel

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Recently, a friend of mine had to have knee replacement surgery. We talked about his concerns and even his fears about going in for surgery. We discovered it wasn’t any one particular thing about his upcoming procedure that was scary for him, but a number of things ranging from the operation itself to his recovery—even worry about whether or not the procedure would work.

What is Tomophobia [The Fear of Surgery]?

terrified young man on operating table

Many people experience concern and fear around medical procedures. After all, operations can be terrifying. For a minority of people though, that fear becomes so irrational and overwhelming that they experience harmful psychological and physical effects that disrupt their everyday lives. A professional therapist may diagnose them with a condition called tomophobia—the intense fear of surgery or surgical procedures (1).

Symptoms of Tomophobia

woman having panic attack in public place

Tomophobia is an anxiety disorder that causes serious disruptions to a person’s life. Tomophobia itself is a rare diagnosis but can encompass a variety of phobias such as a fear of needles or a fear of doctors. It is usually categorized under the heading of a “specific” phobia meaning the anxiety is triggered by a specific event such as surgery. (2)

For people diagnosed with tomophobia, just the thought of the procedure will trigger an irrational fear serious enough to keep them from going to the doctor or having the procedure done to begin with. Not having a medical procedure, in some cases, can cause more harm to a person than the actual procedure itself.  Here are 7 symptoms common to tomophobia:

  • Avoidance
  • Debilitating panic attacks
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightening of the chest
  • Sweating
  • Trembling

All of these symptoms can contribute to a person not being able to function like they should and it can impact their lives negatively

When this level of fear causes such a disruption in a person’s life that it threatens their well-being, a professional evaluation needs to take place. A true diagnosis can bring with it different ways to help control and even overcome the related anxiety. 

While this is not an exhaustive list of possible manifestations of symptoms, it should be able to give you a general sense of where you fall in the spectrum. If you believe you could be diagnosed with tomophobia, seek out professional help. Licensed therapists will help you discern if you have a true diagnosis versus a general and normal fear. 

What Causes Tomophobia?

team of surgeons performing a procedure

The causes of tomophobia can generally be broken down into 3 categories:

A History of Previous Poor Experiences 

The fear of surgery can come from your own previous experiences.  If you had a bad experience getting your tonsils removed as a child, you may not be willing to have an operation to remove your gallbladder as an adult—fearing the same bad experience would happen again. 

We all have friends who have shared their own bad experiences with medical procedures. TV and the internet are also great sources to find medical procedure horror stories to support your fear and convince you that your fear is justified. 

The Procedure Itself

Most surgery patients are not doctors and do not have enough medical experience with surgery to know exactly what they are going to be putting their bodies through. You may have some good questions for the doctor, but the full scope of the procedure isn’t always explained well-enough. Or, if anxiety is already developing, the full explanation may not be heard or even understood. That’s when our imaginations fill-in-the-blanks.

The opposite can also be true. While knowledge about a procedure can put you at ease, too much knowledge or the wrong knowledge can heighten the anxiety. I made the mistake myself of watching a real full knee replacement surgery before having my own ACL replacement surgery. It was pretty brutal and sometimes shocking. The plus side was that I was thrilled I wasn’t having a full knee replacement surgery! 

The Doctor and Hospital 

When you go to the hospital or outpatient center, you are putting your life in the hands of total strangers. Most of the time, your doctor is merely an acquaintance. The doctor may have a great reputation as a surgeon but for most of us, we only meet our surgeon a few weeks before we literally put our lives into their hands.

Hospitals are scary for most people in general. Once you get past the lobby you enter a cold environment with concrete walls and tile floors, the smell of disinfectant is everywhere and most of the patients and visitors you see don’t seem happy to be there. 

At the start of surgery you’re about to be unconscious, or at least heavily sedated. You are giving up all control over the situation. Your family is out of sight. People in masks are moving you around, wires and tubes are being connected to you and monitors are beeping. You are totally helpless while at the same time trusting strangers to keep you safe.

If you have a general fear of doctors or even needles to begin with, going through an invasive medical procedure is far more intense and fear inducing than visiting a doctor or getting shot. Something traumatic is about to happen to your body and you want to do everything you can to not let it happen!

3 Strategies to Overcome Tomophobia

Do you really have tomophobia? Sometimes we like to self-diagnose and what could be a simple, rational fear of the unknown circumstances around an upcoming medical procedure suddenly becomes a self-diagnosed disorder. If you have a general practitioner, talk with them about your fear. They’ll be able to help you determine if you need to be evaluated for a real tomophobia diagnosis.

Turn Your Fear into a Challenge to Overcome

Talk to your surgeon about your fears. What about the procedure is really bothering you? Your anxiety may diminish if you trust the doctor performing the procedure and if you trust the procedure itself. Talk to other people who have had the same procedure—even if by a different doctor—and get different perspectives from their experiences.  

If you can, make an appointment to talk with your anesthesiologist before your surgery. This is the person who is really responsible for keeping you safe during the operation. Share your fears with them and they’ll be able to give you honest answers about what they can do to help. Their job is to keep you alive and your anxiety related high-blood pressure only makes their job harder! (3)

Meditation, Yoga and Calmness

Mindfulness Mediation and yoga are also common in the treatment of tomophobia. Mindfulness Mediation directs your brain to focus on something like your breathing instead of your fear. Yoga focuses your thoughts on the poses, breathing and helps with basic mediation. Both of these methods direct your mind away from your fears and toward things that bring you calmness. (4)

Woman meditating by the ocean

Advanced Treatment Options

If those methods don’t work and you are formally diagnosed with tomophobia, there are medical treatment options available. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) with a licensed therapist allows you to discover what parts of the surgery process are causing you anxiety. You’ll work through those feelings and learn to overcome them. 

Exposure Therapy is another method that gives you a chance to witness an actual surgery, usually starting with pictures and working up to videos. Recognizing the parts of the surgery that scare you enables you to overcome those fears. 

And if these methods don’t get the desired results, medication may be another option. Speak to a licensed mental health practitioner or your doctor for the options available to you or you can take advantage of online therapy