Beyond ‘White Coat Syndrome’

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When Dorothea Lack was a little girl, she hid under a doctor’s desk to avoid a vaccination. Undaunted, the doctor crawled under the desk and vaccinated her then and there. Lack said the incident provoked a fear of doctors that followed her into adulthood. “I didn’t feel I could trust them,” says Lack, PhD, now a cancer or heart disease are more likely to get screened for those illnesses, studies show. In fact, many people face conflicting emotions about visiting a doctor, Consedine says. For example, a man may fear the discomfort of a colorectal exam, but also fear the consequences of missing a colon cancer diagnosis.

What determines whether we seek proper health care or avoid it? “Fear aroused in the absence of any sense of what to do — of a coping procedure — is more likely to lead to delay and avoidance,” says Howard Leventhal, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Health Beliefs and Behavior at Rutgers University. If a person feels that a diagnosis will doom them, or that the health care system is untrustworthy, or that they can’t afford treatment, they are more likely to let their fears guide their decisions.

Fear of Doctors: How to Cope

Here are some tips experts suggest to cope with fear of doctors or medical procedures:

1. Identify what worries you. Or as Consedine puts it, deconstruct your mosquito bite — as well as clear indication of how long the feeling will last. If you’re worried about pain from a procedure, you may want to ask for a preview of what you are about to feel, Leventhal suggests.

5. Seek a new doctor. If you’re afraid of your doctor, you might want to seek out a new one who evokes a more calming reaction, Lack advises.

6. Try cognitive behavioral therapy. By reframing a patient’s state of mind and teaching coping techniques, this form of therapy has been shown to relieve anxiety in as little as two or three sessions, Lack says.

7. Take someone with you. Once you’ve recognized your fear, talk about it to someone who is unthreatening, Hay says. Many anxious people rely on a spouse, relative, or close friend to get them to an appointment and even sit with them in the examining room. Your greatest resource could prove to be someone who cares deeply enough about your health to help you overcome your fears.