How to Be Less Anxious About a Doctor's Appointment
It’s safe to say that for most of us, going to a healthcare provider is not ranked highly on our list of favorite activities. From scheduling them to actually going, and then doing any necessary follow-ups, doctor’s appointments can cause feelings of anxiety and apprehension, not to mention fear and confusion.
Why Some Don’t Like Going to the Doctor
Where to begin? There are many reasons why some people don’t like going to the doctor. “The medical system can be frightening,” says Diane Solomon, Ph.D., a psychiatric nurse practitioner based in Portland, Oregon. “I don't know how anyone without a degree in healthcare could know how to navigate this system effectively.”
Between confusing medical bills and insurance plans and fragmented care that often pushes us to see several physicians across multiple practices, it’s easy to feel discouraged. In addition to feeling intimidated by the healthcare system, many of us may struggle to understand what our providers are saying (hello, medical jargon) or what actionable steps we need to take once we leave an appointment.
“[The healthcare system] is very difficult, and one way people deal with that is by avoiding it completely,” Solomon adds. One qualitative study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine suggests that people may also avoid appointments because they don’t feel it’s important to get routine care, getting to their doctor’s office is too difficult, or they don’t want to confront new symptoms and hope they will go away on their own.
What Happens When We Delay Doctor’s Appointments
Putting off medical appointments may not seem like a big deal at first. But if you habitually put them off, whether they’re regular checkups with a general practitioner or specialist, or a special appointment to have symptoms checked out, your health may suffer in the long run.
“It’s helpful to remember the value of having a physician see what you are like when you are not ill. This provides a basis for comparison for the times that you are,” explains William Anixter, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director based in Asheville, North Carolina.
In addition, avoiding appointments may make anxious feelings worse. “Avoidance can often intensify anxiety and fear,” says Abby Wilson, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist based in Houston. “So, by delaying that process, we're actually intensifying the emotion because we're not addressing it head-on.”
What’s more, avoiding appointments can lead to other issues that range from inconveniences—like letting prescriptions expire, making it difficult to get refills, or getting charged no-show fees—to full-blown health problems that otherwise could have been prevented or managed by seeing your doctor earlier.
How to Ease Stress About a Doctor's Visit
Different strategies can help you make and keep doctor’s appointments with less stress and more confidence before, during, and after the visit.
Before the Appointment
To Make Sure You Follow Through on Your Visit…
Anixter suggests scheduling the appointment at a time that doesn't complicate the rest of your day. For example: "Schedule it at the end of your workday, or plan to work to a certain point in the afternoon and go to the appointment, and then arrange to go home from there so that you're not having conflict about attending the appointment because of competing priorities," he says.
You may also decide to tell someone you trust that you have an appointment coming up. That way, they can check in with you beforehand (to ensure you’re going) as well as after the fact (in case you need someone to talk to).
To Ease Pre-Appointment Jitters…
“I think healthy distraction can be helpful,” Wilson says. Do things you enjoy so that your mind isn't solely focused on this upcoming appointment. Maybe that's focusing on work, spending quality time with friends and family, or exercising.
To Feel More Prepared…
Do your best to curb a negative inner dialogue before your doctor’s visit. If you lack confidence when explaining symptoms to your doctor, or worry your doctor won’t listen to you, try to reframe those thoughts. In other words, try taking your negative thoughts and countering them with more positive ideas or outcomes.
For example, you may have the thought “I don’t know what I’m talking about. How will my doctor take me seriously?” Solomon suggests reframing to something along the lines of “I am the expert on me, and nobody else knows about me more than I do.”
In addition, it may be helpful to write down a list of symptoms you’re experiencing and questions you want to ask. “Clarify your priorities: What is most important to you to accomplish in this visit?” Solomon says.
During the Appointment
To Feel Less Stressed…
Whether it’s on paper or in your smartphone, bring the list of your symptoms and concerns with you to the doctor’s office. “Do not be afraid to bring that list out. We are used to that in healthcare, and in fact, we really welcome that because it allows us to keep the appointment going,” Solomon says.
Deep breathing can also help to keep you less stressed and more focused in the moment, Wilson says. If you’re concerned you won’t be able to remember what the provider says or understand directions they give you, consider bringing a loved one with you to be in charge of that, she adds.
To Avoid Assuming the Worst…
Doctor’s appointments can be stressful when you aren’t sure what the outcome will be, but as much as you can, resist the urge to dwell on the worst-case scenario before you know anything definite, like test results or a diagnosis. “It's a good idea to not react before you get health information that might be worrisome or frightening,” Anixter explains. “There will be plenty of opportunity to react once you have the reports and you know what’s happening.”
To Keep Calm in the Face of Uncertainty or Bad News…
If your doctor says they want you to go for more testing, remember that isn't in itself bad news. Uncertainty is stressful, but as much as you can, stay in the present moment. You don't need to worry until you know more.
If you do get bad news about your health, reach out to your support system. "That's when you want to tell your spouse, your family members, or your closest friends that you're coping with this situation and give them an opportunity to be supportive," Anixter says. "It's also a good time to do research and learn about the condition that you're dealing with so you can put the results and the information in perspective."
After the Appointment
To Calm Down and Reward Yourself…
After-appointment treats aren’t just for kids—they are good for adults, too. You might go get your favorite meal, take the rest of the day off, or go for a long walk. "Do something for yourself that feels good and feels satisfying afterwards so that you start to associate the experience of going to the doctor with something positive,” Wilson says.
To Follow Through on Future Care…
Keep scheduling simple—and allow less time for procrastination—by making your next doctor’s appointment at the end of your current one. If your schedule is becoming increasingly busy, see whether the practice offers virtual visits. And remember that staying on top of your doctor’s appointments is a sure way to practice proactive and meaningful self-care.
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