How to Manage Medical Appointment Anxiety

May 2023

Seeing your doctor for regular checkups or when you’re sick is part of staying healthy, but for some people, medical appointments — even regular checkups — can trigger severe anxiety. If this sounds like something you’ve experienced, you’re not alone. A 2022 survey by PatientPoint found that 39% of Americans have felt anxious before going to a medical appointment.

Do you have a phobia of medical appointments?

Fear of doctors, medical tests, or medical visits is a type of anxiety disorder known as iatrophobia. A phobia is an extreme or irrational fear of something that poses little or no danger. In general, phobias affect 12% of U.S. adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Fear of doctors and medical appointments can get in the way of taking care of yourself. Some people get so anxious about visiting their doctors or getting medical tests that they don’t go at all or put off important tests.

In general, signs of a phobia include:

  • Feeling panicked or fearful.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Trembling or feeling shaky.
  • A strong desire to get away from the situation.

How anxiety can affect your medical visits

Even if you go to your medical visits, it’s important to get your anxiety under control.

Anxiety during a visit can cause what’s known as white coat hypertension. That’s when your anxiety causes your blood pressure reading to rise, while your actual blood pressure may be lower. Your doctor may want you to take your blood pressure at home, where you are more relaxed, to confirm your blood pressure reading.

Specific types of phobias can also make medical appointments challenging. One example is claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces. This can make it difficult to get certain imaging tests, such as MRI or CT scans. Imaging tests can also trigger “scanxiety.” While this isn’t a medical term, it’s used to describe the concern people have over what their test results may mean.

Another example is trypanophobia, the fear of getting poked with a needle. If that’s the case, you may avoid getting blood tests or necessary vaccines, such as the flu shot.

Tips for managing anxiety over medical visits

Doctor visits and medical tests are necessary to look for signs of illness or disease and to help you manage any chronic conditions.

Seeing your doctor for regular checkups can also prevent you from developing serious illness, such as diabetes or heart disease. For example, your doctor can make sure your blood glucose and blood pressure are at healthy levels. And if they’re not, your doctor can offer treatments to keep them from getting out of control.

These tips may help you manage your anxiety so you can get through your next appointment:

Talk to your doctor or nurse. Chances are they’ve heard these concerns before. If they know you have claustrophobia, they may be able to change the imaging tests you need. If you have a needle phobia, they may numb the site with ice or numbing cream first.

They can also provide tips to help you manage needle phobia.

Bring along a family member or friend. When you’re sick, you may worry that the doctor will give you bad news. Your anxiety may also get in the way of remembering the important details of your visit. Having someone you trust with you can help you feel less alone and give you some support. They can also help you remember what was said.

Write things down. The PatientPoint survey showed that 51% of Americans are too afraid to ask their doctors about their health conditions or symptoms. They worry that they won’t understand what the doctor is saying. Before your appointment, write down any symptoms related to your illness or medical condition. Include any questions you have so you don’t forget to ask them. During the medical visit, write down anything that is difficult to understand. Ask your doctor for a detailed printout of what you discuss, any recommended follow-up visits, and how you can contact them if you have any other questions or concerns.

Get a good night’s sleep before your appointment. Lack of sleep can worsen anxiety.

Avoid caffeine before your visit. Caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety. Even without anxiety, caffeine can also increase blood pressure readings.

Distract yourself. People who struggle with iatrophobia say that waiting for the appointment to start worsens their anxiety. To take your mind off the wait, bring along something to read or do.

If you try these tips and still have anxiety over medical appointments, it’s important to tell your doctor. They can refer you to a mental health professional who can provide treatment options, including anti-anxiety medication and talk therapy.

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