Fight the fear
Lisa Salmon says it’s better to get checked out than put it off
HAVE you got a niggling health problem you’ve not seen a doctor about because you’re frightened of what you might be told? Of course, your ailment might just disappear. Or it could be serious, and by ignoring it you’re potentially making it a lot worse — or even life-threatening.
Fear of bad news: It’s the fear of finding out that puts many people off seeking medical attention for health problems, and research shows it’s this fear that stops a third of adults from taking the necessary steps to improve their health.
The middle-aged are most likely to avoid medical appointments, according to a review by the biopharmaceutical company AbbVie’s Live:Lab project.
Men more frightened: The Live:Lab review found men are more likely to be affected by the fear of finding out, and tend to endure symptoms for longer than women before seeking medical attention. Men are more likely to be embarrassed about seeking help, and fear it could make them appear less masculine, resilient or strong.
Men might not want to be thought of as the “worried well”, says psychologist Dr David Pendleton, who’s written books on doctor-patient communication.
However, he stresses such an attitude isn’t gender-specific; there are women with the same philosophy.
Why avoid medical help? The primary factors behind avoiding the doctor are fear and denial.
“The problem with any medical investigation is that it always raises the doubt there could be something serious going on. That would really frighten you, so you minimise everything,” says Pendleton.
“We think of denial as being hugely irrational, but if you convince yourself what’s happening to you isn’t serious, then for a while it isn’t, and you instantly feel better.”
Is it likely to be serious? There’s an inverse relationship in people’s minds between likelihood and seriousness — they think the things likely to happen to them aren’t serious, and vice-versa.
So, they think they’re likely to get a cold but it’s not likely to be serious, and they think they’re not likely to get a disease like cancer, which is serious.
Talk it over: Research shows married people are more likely to go to the doctor, possibly because their spouse gives them the push they need.
Before people visit a doctor, they usually talk to someone else about what’s wrong, and the person they speak to — even though they’re not often medically qualified — might either say it sounds like nothing or that it ought to be checked out.
This serves as a kind of second opinion, almost giving the worried well permission to go to the doctor. Or not. Internet searches can increase fear: Many people try to self-diagnose by searching their symptoms on the internet, and while this can increase fear, the opposite can also be true.
You can also practice denial through the internet, and selectively find reassuring messages about similar symptoms.
“If you’re a pessimist you can find things to worry about, and if you’re an optimist you can find reasons to show your problem is nothing at all,” says Pendleton.
“It’s just another way of fooling yourself. It’s much better to see a real doctor.”
HEAD ACHE: Many people avoid seeking medical help through denial or by checking out their symptoms on the internet.