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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

Beyond 'White Coat Syndrome'

Fear of doctors and tests can hinder preventive health care.
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Fear's Silver Lining

Fear can also be your friend when it comes to health care, Consedine says. People who are more afraid of 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 him, or that the health care system is untrustworthy, or that he can't afford treatment, he is more likely to let his fears guide his 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 anxiety. "Anxiety tends to be diffuse; people are not sure what they're really anxious about. But if you identify what it is, that makes it much easier to manage because you can evaluate your coping potential."

2. Confront anxieties and deal with them rationally. This could be a useful way to overcome fear of screening tests, Consedine says. For example, the digital rectal exam can be important for detecting prostate cancer, and the colorectal exam is important for early detection of colorectal cancers. Studies show that many men avoid these tests because of a perceived threat to their sexuality, Consedine says.

Other screenings such as the mammogram may be uncomfortable, but they are brief and can be life-saving. Surveys show that people anticipate screenings to be more painful than they actually are, Consedine says. And rationally, those brief moments of discomfort are far outweighed by the chance of having your life saved by early detection of a disease.

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