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What is OCDOCD SubtypesAfraid of going to the doctor? Advice from a therapist 

Afraid of going to the doctor? Advice from a therapist 

9 min read
Erica Digap Burson

By Erica Digap Burson

Reviewed by April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

Nov 28, 2023

Possibly related to:

The hospital is rarely a fun place to visit, and it’s normal to have some hesitation about going to the doctor. Whether you’re worried about hearing bad news, being on the receiving end of a huge medical bill, or having to go through a scary treatment, many people find themselves avoiding their doctor from time to time. 

But avoiding the doctor out of fear can do more harm than good, especially if it means that you’re neglecting your health because of it. If you’re wondering why you have this fear and what you can do about it, you’re in the right place. We spoke with  April Kilduff, LCPC, LMHC, a therapist with NOCD, to discuss the potential root causes of this fear and what you can do to move past it and make sure you’re doing what’s best for your health. 

What does a fear of going to the doctor look like? 

A fear of the doctor is fairly common, but it can look different for everyone. Some common reasons that you might be so hesitant to make an appointment include: 

  • The fear of hearing bad news about your health, like a serious condition such as cancer
  • The fear of having to take an uncomfortable test like a blood draw or an MRI 
  • The fear of having to discuss something that you’re vulnerable about and don’t necessarily want to change, including “vices” like smoking, drinking, or unhealthy eating habits 
  • The fear that, no matter what the doctor tells you, your particular health ailment won’t get better 
  • The fear of embarrassment and having to talk about intimate and personal symptoms 
  • A fear of misdiagnosis 
  • A fear of not being heard and having your concerns recognized, especially if you’re in a vulnerable population that has historically received subpar healthcare 

What’s at the root of a fear of going to the doctor? 

Because there is so much potential for discomfort or bad news, many people don’t like going to their regular check-ups. However, if your fear of going to the doctor has reached a level so extreme that you find yourself actively avoiding making an appointment even if it means your health may suffer from it, you might be dealing with a phobia. 

Phobias are anxiety disorders marked by intense and excessive fear. “The primary issue with phobias is that you are far more afraid of something than the average person, and then you just avoid it,” explains Kilduff.  

The phobic fear of going to the doctor even has its own name: iatrophobia. People with iatrophobia will often avoid doctor visits or medical care in general. Even if they do end up going to the doctor, they might be scared enough during their visit that it affects their appointment. For example, they might mentally disengage during the appointment and avoid asking follow-up questions for clarification. Their fear may even be extreme enough that their blood pressure rises during their visit and lead to false readings, a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as “white coat hypertension.” 

Iatrophobia can stem from any number of reasons. For example, someone might develop iatrophobia if they have had negative or traumatic past experiences with a healthcare provider, or if they have dealt or are currently dealing with a painful chronic and ongoing health condition that requires constant medical care. You might even be fearful of going to the doctor if you have watched others close to you deal with pain and suffering despite receiving medical care.  

Marginalized populations who have historically received poor attention in the healthcare field might also deal with iatrophobia. For example, researchers have seen a phobia of doctors fairly commonly in the African American and transgender communities, both of which have a long history of receiving suboptimal and even traumatizing healthcare experiences. 

You might even have a related phobia that ultimately leads to a fear of hospitals and an avoidance of health institutions. For example, some people may avoid hospitals because they have an extreme fear of blood, a specific kind of phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII).  This phobia is unique because it can actually cause your blood pressure to drop to the point where you faint. As a result, people with this kind of phobia will often report avoiding hospital visits. Others might deal with a fear of taking medications, called pharmacophobia, and they may then avoid going to the doctor altogether out of the fear that they might be prescribed with a medication that they have to take to stay healthy.  

Other reasons you may fear doctors

In addition to iatrophobia, you might also be dealing with other potential issues that leave you unwilling to make and keep your doctor’s appointment. 

General Anxiety 

You may be more likely to fear going to the doctor if you deal with anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) that has attached itself to your health concerns. People with anxiety disorders can deal with constant and elevated levels of worrying and stress, which can in turn keep them from going to the doctor due to stress about the status of their health. 

There’s even a specific kind of anxiety disorder called illness anxiety disorder (formally known as hypochondriasis) that specifically centers around your health concerns. People with an illness anxiety disorder will have recurring and persistent fears and anxieties around the possibility of developing a serious medical condition or illness. In these cases, they might avoid going to the doctor out of fear that they might be diagnosed with a serious or life-threatening condition, such as cancer

Health Concern OCD 

If your fears of the doctor are recurring and are accompanied by repetitive compulsive actions that you do to ease the anxiety, it’s possible that you may be dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is a condition that is marked by obsessions, which are intrusive and unwanted thoughts, and compulsions, which are actions that are carried out to ease the stress and anxiety caused by those obsessions. OCD can target many different fears, including fears surrounding your health and body. This subtype of OCD is called Health Concern OCD, and people with this kind of OCD will have intrusive thoughts about the status of their health. 

More often, people with Health Concern OCD actually want to visit the doctor more than average, Kilduff explains. For example, they might make appointments with multiple doctors as a way to look for different opinions, or ask to get tests done repeatedly as a way to ease their anxiety and confirm that they are healthy. 

However, it’s still common for people who have Health Concern OCD to actually react in the opposite way by avoiding the doctor out of the fear that their fears surrounding their health will be confirmed. Similarly, people may avoid the doctor if they have Contamination OCD, a kind of OCD that centers around contamination and infection. Their fears might center around going to the hospital or doctor’s office and getting infected by the bacteria or viruses present. 

PTSD 

Finally, it’s also possible that your fear of going to a doctor may be linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if you have gone through a particularly traumatizing experience with hospitals or seen others deal with it. PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after someone sees or goes through a traumatic experience. People with PTSD can have a variety of symptoms like flashbacks, outbursts, or reckless behaviors, especially when exposed to things that are related to their trauma. 

In addition, the avoidance of trauma-related emotions is very common in people who have PTSD. As a result, if someone has PTSD that is somehow linked to the medical system or doctors, they may actively avoid any future doctor visits as a way of protecting themselves from the trauma. 

Coping with your fear of doctors: how to overcome your fear 

Conquering your fear of going to the doctor will depend on the core reason behind your symptoms. However, no matter where your specific fears stem from, talking to a mental health professional is a good place to start. 

Working with a mental health professional can help you unpack the reason for your fears, whether they come from past experiences, a specific condition, or general anxieties around the status of your health. Ultimately, the goal with any kind of therapy in this case is to learn more about the core of your fear and anxiety and to find ways to better handle the distress that they may bring. 

You may also benefit from specific therapy treatments if you are dealing with a diagnosable mental health condition. For example, if your fear is at all related to a phobia or anxiety disorder, a type of behavioral therapy called exposure and response (ERP) therapy is the best option. 

ERP is a form of behavioral therapy that is designed to help people with fears and anxieties confront their triggers and learn how to better manage their responses to them. ERP involves two different phases: exposure and response prevention. During exposure exercises, you would work with a therapist to face the triggers that make you anxious or uncomfortable, learning to accept and even lean into those feelings without resorting to compulsive responses like avoiding doctor visits.

Because ERP helps patients find ways to cope with the things that bring them fear, it is considered the gold standard option for helping people with OCD learn to better manage their fears without engaging in compulsive behaviors like avoidance. However, this same result also makes it suitable for people dealing with other anxiety disorders, including illness anxiety disorder and phobias like iatrophobia. “ERP is the gold standard for any anxiety disorder, as well as OCD,” Kilduff says.

What might this look like for someone who avoids going to the doctor? Like all forms of ERP, this depends on the severity of the person’s fear and their specific triggers.

For example, Kilduff might start with having someone write the word “disease” if their fears of the doctor are particularly intense. They can then progress by looking at pictures of doctors’ offices or watching videos with doctors talking about certain diagnoses or procedures. Writing out a worst-case scenario about a doctor’s visit is also a good way to confront the fear. Ultimately, they might then work up to the point of scheduling and showing up to a doctor’s appointment for a health concern or general checkup. 

Meanwhile, if your avoidance of the doctor is linked to PTSD, other forms of therapy can also help. For example, prolonged exposure (PE) helps people with PTSD gradually confront the memories of their trauma and learn how to better deal with the stress that they cause.  

Where you can go to overcome your fears

At the end of the day, receiving adequate healthcare is very often a necessity for safeguarding our health and well-being, and this can make the fear of going to the doctor a potentially serious problem. You might be feeling overwhelmed or hopeless if you’re dealing with a fear of going to the doctor, especially if you are dealing with a serious condition that requires treatment. 

However, the good news is that this fear can be treated and overcome. 

“I think it’s generally important for our healthcare that we are able to go to doctors and dentists to stay healthy and to find out if there are things unique to us that we need to address,” Kilduff says. “Those fears can be conquered. Maybe you won’t love going to the doctor, but you can at least get to a point where you can go when you need to.” 

If you think you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, OCD, or PTSD, I strongly recommend learning more about NOCD’s accessible treatment options for all these conditions. NOCD Therapists receive intensive, specialized treatment in every condition they treat, and NOCD offers live support groups and expert-designed therapy tools to help you stay on the road to recovery.

Learn more about ERP
April Kilduff, MA, LCPC

April Kilduff is a NOCD therapist who has exclusively treated OCD and anxiety disorders, as well as their intersection with the Autism spectrum, for over a decade. Her path to this career started with her own journey dealing with panic attacks, perfectionism and a couple phobias. When not working on exposures with members, you can find her at home reading books and hanging out with her two cats or out taking pictures and traveling the world.