Afraid of Going to the Doctor?

“Can my anxiety and worry really spike my blood pressure when I am having it checked?”

I get this question all the time so if you have wondered about it yourself, you are not alone!

White Coat Syndrome

This is such a common occurrence that there’s a name for the condition. White Coat Syndrome includes many health care anxieties: fear of doctors and doctor’s offices, fear of having blood pressure taken, fear of needles or blood, fear of hospitals, and fear of any preventative/diagnostic testing.

Underlying these fears we often find nervousness or discomfort about painful procedures, fear of the unknown, fear of being vulnerable, discomfort about being naked and/or being touched, or fear of being lectured or made to feel stupid.

Avoidance of doctor appointments or medical procedures is the most common sign of this fear.

Your Thoughts Affect Your Blood Pressure

White Coat Syndrome may be most evident in your blood pressure reading. As many as 20% of Americans suffer from White Coat Syndrome, in which blood pressure surges when taken in the doctor’s office. I work with many clients who take their blood pressure at home and regularly find that it is significantly higher when taken at the doctor’s office.

How can this be?

Your brain and body are hard wired to protect you from danger. Worrying about going to the doctor indeed causes your brain to go on high alert watching for danger. This is part of the “fight or flight” response.

When the brain kicks off that worry, a natural physiological reaction occurs as adrenaline, cortisol and other stress chemicals are released into the body. The presence of excess stress chemicals can cause elevated blood pressure, heart palpitations, sweating, chills or flush, tingling and other real physiological responses.

So, it is very true that worrying about your blood pressure reading can, in fact, cause a higher reading.

Fear of Bad News

Fear in a health care setting is perfectly normal since many of us associate doctors and hospitals with illness and death.

Many people face the double whammy of conflicting emotions regarding health care fears. First, there’s fear of the exam or procedure itself. On the other hand, there’s also fear of the consequences of NOT going in for checkups or NOT having something checked out. Nobody wants to hear bad news from a doctor.

The most common anxiety underlying White Coat Syndrome is the fear of a bad diagnosis. There’s also fear about being given lifestyle restrictions such as changes to eating, drinking, smoking or exercising.

Overcoming White Coat Syndrome

There are many proven methods for relieving health care anxieties. Here are some tips:

  • Name the worry. People often aren’t sure what they’re really anxious about. Identifying the specific worry is the first step to diffusing the power it has over you.
  • Face the worry. Dealing directly with fears and anxieties is what works to let them go. Avoidance only perpetuates the worry.
  • Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy done one-on-one with a counselor helps you name the worries and face them. CBT has been shown to be very effective is overcoming anxieties. It helps you shift your thoughts and reframe your state of mind to see things more rationally. It also teaches new coping techniques. This can prevent the physiological chain of events that causes higher blood pressure readings in the doctor’s office.
  • Learn new calming techniques. You want tools to relax the central nervous system as you prepare for and attend appointments. I teach my clients techniques such as Mindful Belly Breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, and Calm Mind Meditation, all of which are also found on my CD titled “Less Stress Now.”
  • Ask direct questions. Patients can feel more relaxed when they know what to expect. Even if the doctor is in a hurry, you deserve to have all your questions answered so be honest and don’t be intimidated.
  • Take someone with you. You can ask someone to go along and sit with you in the exam room. The presence of a trusted friend or family member can help you stay calmer and think more clearly. They can also be enlisted to help ask questions.
  • Consider seeking a new health care practitioner. If you don’t feel comfortable with your doctor, you might want to find a new provider who creates a more calm and trusting environment. You deserve someone who spends time with you, answers all your questions, and makes you feel like he or she really cares about your well-being.