Beyond 'White Coat Syndrome'
Fear of doctors and tests can hinder preventive health care.
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
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.