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Anxious about going to the doctor? How to stay calm and get more from every appointment
It’s normal to be a bit nervous at a medical visit. These tips can ease your mind and help you get better care.
Does going to the doctor make you feel anxious? Maybe you’re embarrassed to talk about certain topics with your care provider. Or you might worry about hearing bad news or are nervous about getting blood tests.
There is also the stress of getting to your appointment on time. Plus, you may not be feeling well in the first place.
And if you’ve had stressful experiences at the doctor before, you may feel even more anxious coming back, says Luana Marques, PhD. She is an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
For some people, seeing the doctor actually raises their blood pressure during the appointment. It’s called “white coat syndrome.”1 It can happen to people who usually have healthy blood pressure.1
It’s normal to feel nervous about seeing the doctor, whether you’re having an in-person or telehealth appointment. But it’s important that your anxiety doesn’t get in the way of your medical care. Seeing your doctor on a regular basis is a key part of staying healthy. Here’s how to make every visit easier.
Bring a list of talking points
You had a mental list of things to talk about with your doctor. But once you entered the exam room, you forgot half of them. Sound familiar? That’s because feeling anxious can cause you to have trouble concentrating.2
Prepare ahead of time, says Marques. You can do it the night before your appointment. It’s a good idea to pick three or four things you want to talk about. You can rank them in order of importance.3 Some examples:
- A new symptom that’s been bothering you
- A health change you’d like to make (such as sleeping better, quitting smoking, exercising more)
- Medication concerns
Jot them down on a piece of paper or write a list in your phone. When your appointment starts, begin with the most important question. Then work your way down the list.
Snap photos of all your medicines
At every appointment, your doctor will ask what medicines you take even if they have it documented in your medical record. That includes prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines and supplements like vitamins. It can be overwhelming to try to remember them all.
Here’s an easy solution. Before your appointment, use your smartphone to take a photo of the label of each medicine. Or, you can simply bring all of your medicines with you to your appointment.
That will give your doctor all the information they need. Because even if you bring along a list of your medicines, you might leave out important details, such as:
- The exact dose
- The number of times you take it each day
- The prescribing doctor (if relevant)
Having a virtual appointment? You can gather all your medications ahead of time and keep them nearby during your appointment. You can then read right off the label to the provider.
Pick a time that works for you
A doctor’s appointment can be extra stressful if you squeeze your visit into a busy day.
Marques suggests choosing a time that’s convenient for your schedule. Maybe the first thing in the morning is best for you. Or perhaps a lunchtime visit is easiest. The key is to give yourself plenty of free time before and after your visit.
Leave for your appointment a bit early so you won’t have to deal with the added stress of being late. Figure in extra time for traffic and parking if you’re driving. Are you taking public transportation? Pick a bus or train that gives you plenty of time to get to the medical office.
And it may be better not to schedule other appointments for later that day in case your doctor’s visit runs late.
Bring someone with you
You don’t have to go it alone. You may be able to bring along a friend or your spouse to your appointment.4
This person can do more than offer moral support. Your advocate can help remind you of topics you wanted to discuss with your doctor.3 They can also take notes during the appointment. That way, you won’t have to stress about remembering everything your doctor said.3
Don’t forget that you are in control of your visit. Do you want to discuss something privately with the doctor? You can ask your friend or loved one to step out of the room.3
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Keep yourself busy in the waiting room
Doctor’s offices are busy places. You may have to wait a while to be seen. And sitting in the waiting room is a place where nervous thoughts can spin out of control, says Marques.
Instead of letting your anxious thoughts take over, try to distract yourself.4 Bring a book or knitting project. Do a sudoku or word puzzle. Pop in your headphones and listen to music or a podcast. (Check out Optum’s podcast, “Until It’s Fixed.”) Having something to do may help take your mind off worrying about the appointment.
Still feeling too anxious? Marques suggests trying mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing or imagery.4 For example:
- Try 4-7-8 breathing. Breath in for 4 slow counts, hold your breath for 7 counts, then breath out for 8 slow counts. Repeat.
- Close your eyes and visualize a place that makes you feel happy. Maybe that’s a beach or a garden.
These tips can help relax your body and mind. Even chatting with someone else in the waiting room may be a positive distraction.4
Tell your doctor about your fears
Remember that your doctor is your ally. You can feel comfortable telling them that you’re nervous about the appointment.
For example, if you are afraid of needles, let the staff know.5 Before they draw blood or give you a vaccine, they might be able to apply a numbing cream to the area. Or they can suggest other tips to help you manage the experience. Some tips to try: laying down for the blood draw, looking away, deep breathing, squeezing an object or someone’s hand.
Finally, if the strategies here don’t help ease your anxiety, it may be helpful to get support from a therapist.
You could have a fear (phobia) called iatrophobia. That’s a fear of doctors and medical tests.4 People with it may avoid going to the doctor, even when they feel sick. And that can be bad for your health.
“Many people feel anxious going to the doctor, especially since COVID-19,” says Marques. “If you find that this fear is affecting your health, it is perfectly okay to seek professional help to manage your anxiety.” Your primary care provider can refer you to the right mental health professional.
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- Integrated Blood Pressure Control. White coat syndrome and its variations: differences and clinical impact. Published November 8, 2018. Accessed April 10, 2023.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. Last reviewed April 2023. Accessed April 10, 2023.
- National Institute on Aging. How to Prepare for a Doctor's Appointment. Last reviewed February 3, 2020. Accessed April 10, 2023.
- MedlinePlus. How to Cope with Medical Test Anxiety. Last updated March 9, 2021. Accessed April 10, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthcare Providers: Understanding Needle Fears and Phobia. Last updated March 17, 2022. Accessed April 16, 2023.
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