“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
There are those among us who avoid doctors because we hate clinics. Or those of us who would rather get sick than deal with getting injections. Or maybe you have an upcoming surgery you’ve put off for a year, or two because you’re afraid of the hospital or the procedure.
Now I want to help you go from fearing to starting to face your medical phobia.
Read the following tips to start conquering your fear.
These tips come from the book, Overcoming Medical Phobias: How To Overcome Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, and Dentists, by Martin M. Anthony, PhD, and Mark A. Waitling, MD.
Tip #1 – Read the book
Take an evening, or a few evenings, to quickly read through the table of contents and to skim the different chapters.
(Reading a more technical book before bed is one of my best techniques for getting to sleep 😉
Tip #2 – Record your progress
Dr. Anthony and Dr. Waitling suggest that you record your progress.
Buy a notebook at the dollar store. If you’d rather go digital, write your journal on your computer, or record your thoughts into a voice memo.
The book has a bunch of practice exercises to help you apply what you learn.
Tip #3 – Don’t expect your fear to immediately go away
Anything worth doing takes practice.You will have to act and practice your way into freedom (pg 7)
Playing the piano, learning a golf swing, learning to ride a bike all take practice.
You will have to act and practice your way into freedom.
Your fear, in fact, may never go away. But you’ll learn how to control your fear, instead of your fear controlling you.
Tip #4 – Learn The Difference Between A Fear and a Phobia
“It is the presence of significant distress and impairment that distinguishes a full-blown phobia from an unrealistic fear that isn’t really a problem. For a fear to be diagnosed as a phobia, it has to be excessive or unrealistic, and it has to bother the person or interfere with his or her functioning in some important way (American Psychiatric Association 1994).”
The authors illustrate the impact of a phobia on the lives of fictional characters called Lucy, Zack and Randy.
Lucy had been afraid of getting injections for as long as she could remember. The sight of blood made her faint. Over the years she avoided doctors and dentists. One time she even avoided visiting her husband in the hospital after his surgery, because her fear was so bad.
Randy was diagnosed with a tumor in his pituitary gland. His doctor told him he needed immediate surgery. He was fearful but not overwhelmed about surgery. But he was terrified of needles and disgusted by blood. He put his surgery off for six months before finally going in.
Zack was accepted to start medical school in the fall. But he was overwhelmed by the sight of blood. He had passed out many times at the sight of blood, and he was afraid it would happen again. He loved medicine but was afraid he couldn’t become a doctor because of his fear and disgust of blood.
Tip #5 – Learn about common physical and emotional responses associated with medical phobia
The most common physical symptoms include extreme fear or panic, including a wide range of physical symptoms – racing or pounding heart, tight muscles, rapid breathing, trembling, sweating, breathlessness, feeling fidgety.
However, a significant number of people with medical phobias also experience fainting. Usually, they experience fainting in two stages.
First, when anticipating the feared situation (like seeing blood or getting the injection), their heart rate and blood pressure drop very quickly, sometimes leading to fainting.
More than half of people with needle phobias and almost three-fourths of people with blood phobias report a history of fainting in situations they fear.
Along with physical symptoms, many people with medical phobia experience disgust.
With the exception of certain animal phobias, fear of blood, injections, and medical procedures are the only phobias known to be associated with strong disgust.
When you work on your fears using the tips from the book, you can learn to manage the fear and disgust so that it’s not overwhelming.
Tip #6 – Record your own physical responses
Do this writing exercise.
In your journal, describe the most common physical symptoms you experience upon encountering the objects and situations you fear. Do you tend to get a rush of fear or a panicky feeling? If so, what physical sensations tend to be associated with your panic? Do you faint in the situations you fear? What percentage of the time do you actually faint? How long are you typically unconscious when you faint? (pg 13, Overcoming Medical Phobias: How To Overcome Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, and Dentists, by Martin M. Anthony, PhD, and Mark A. Waitling, MD)
Tip #7 – Learn about the thinking patterns that trigger medical phobia
Cognitive psychologists believe that anxious thoughts, predictions, assumption, and interpretations trigger fear, fainting, and disgust.
For example, if you predict that an injection will, hurt, that it will cause you to faint, or that you may get, sick from the needle, it’s no wonder that you feel anxious. (Dr. Anthony and Dr. Waitling, Overcoming Medical Phobias: How To Overcome Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, and Dentists pg 15)
Our thoughts are very quick and automatic. They include interpretations and predictions about a situation (for example, the needle will hurt).
Our thoughts may also include negative predictions about our reactions to the situation (for example, “if I become too anxious, I will faint, die or embarrass myself").
Tip # 8 – Identify and record your own anxious thoughts
Exercise: your anxious thoughts
In your journal, list any negative thoughts that run through your mind when you think about encountering about blood, injection, and medical phobias, including the objects or situations you fear. List each thought in the form of a prediction about what you fear may happen. Include predictions about the situation itself (for example, “the pain from the dentist’s drill will be unmanageable"), as well as predictions about your reactions to the situation (for example, “if I become too anxious, I won’t be able to stay and my doctor will think I’m crazy").” (Dr. Anthony and Dr. Waitling, Overcoming Medical Phobias: How To Overcome Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, and Dentists, pg 16)
Tip #9 – Learn about the typical behavior associated with medical phobia
When you and I feel fear, our body mobilizes to protect itself. Therefore, avoidance is the most common response to a feared situation.
Avoidance can take many forms.
Maybe you avoid going to the doctor altogether and risk not getting the treatment you need.
Or maybe you go to a family doctor for a brief session but don’t tell all the details of what you’re going through if you’re afraid of needles, procedures, or blood tests.
Avoidance is the typical behavior that accompanies medical phobia.
Tip #10 – Record your own anxious behavior
Exercise: your anxious behavior
In your journal, list strategies you use to manage your anxiety, avoid feeling fear, or prevent fainting. These strategies may include overt forms of avoidance and escape, or more subtle forms, such as distraction or relying on various safety behaviors designed to make the situation more manageable. (Safety behaviors are any actions you take that are designed to protect you from feeling anxious in the situations you fear.) (Dr. Anthony and Dr. Waitling, Overcoming Medical Phobias: How To Overcome Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, and Dentists, pg 17)
Tip #11 – Realize You’re Not Alone
Consider these statistics, quoted by Dr. Anthony and Dr. Waitling:
- A large study in the United States found that 13.9 percent of people have an extreme fear of blood. For a third of these people, the fear is severe enough to be considered a phobia
- In a European study, 1.6 percent of people had a phobia of injections, 2.1% had a phobia of dentists, and 3.3% had a phobia of injuries
Taming Your Wild Horse
Facing your medical phobia is like taming a beautiful wild horse. Your phobia is your mind’s way of protecting you. But it’s gone wild!
Now it’s time, with much time, patience, and practice, to tame that horse!
Enjoy the video below and think about the metaphor as you apply the 11 tips above.