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Overcoming your fear of doctors and hospitals

In partnership with Dr Marny Lishman

Expert tips to stop your fear from impacting your health

Grey haired doctor wearing glasses and blue scrubs at the hospital and smiling
Grey haired doctor wearing glasses and blue scrubs at the hospital and smiling

While a trip to the doctor’s office might not be many people’s idea of fun, for some, the thought of a medical appointment sets their heart racing – and the prospect of a trip to hospital is outright terrifying.

Fear of doctors and hospitals is not uncommon, but avoiding routine appointments such as vaccinations, necessary medical check-ups and procedures due to this fear can have a huge impact on our health.

At nib, we consider ourselves your health partner when it comes to looking after your body and mind – so we spoke to psychologist Dr Marny Lishman about overcoming your fears of doctors and hospitals.

Try to identify why you're afraid

There are many different possible reasons a person might be fearful of medical appointments. “An individual may have had a negative experience while going to a doctor or hospital in their past as a patient – this could be a bad experience involving an unpleasant interaction, a long illness, a diagnosis that was quite frightening or even had treatment which was painful or made them feel unwell,” explains Marny.

This could be a recent experience or a childhood experience which is triggering. A fear can also come about if someone you’re close to experiences any of the above and you were their support, friend or a witness to it, she adds.

However, even without these experiences, many people do associate doctors, hospitals or anything related to the health system as fearful, Marny shares. “This is a cognitive shortcut that many people have as they have been conditioned throughout their lives via learning that when people go to hospital, it means something bad happened/happens – which obviously isn't the truth.”

If you’re afraid, “Speak to a psychologist about where your fear might come from,” Marny suggests. “Explore your thoughts, feelings and behaviours and learn to challenge them through therapy.”

Communicate your fear with the doctor or nurse

Giving your medical practitioner a clear understanding of how you’re feeling is also important, as this helps give them a better understanding of how to support you on your medical journey. A good practitioner will want to know how you’re feeling and help you with your fears.

“Make sure you find a GP who you like, trust and know,” advises Marny, “and that you visit them regularly for preventative maintenance rather than only when something is wrong.”

Establishing a relationship of trust with your doctor can go a long way to calming your fears.

25 year old nurse wearing aqua scrubs in a hospital smiling and explaining a procedure to two patients

Go with someone you trust

When the time comes to go to a doctor’s appointment or if you need to make a trip to hospital, “take a friend or support person with you to help keep you calm”, says Marny. A trusted friend or family member can act as a supportive presence and also help take in
information that may not sink in when you’re feeling stressed or anxious.

It may also help, she suggests, to desensitise yourself by visiting hospitals and medical centres for other reasons other than illness/treatment. For example, “many have other
services that can be enjoyed like cafes, parklands, shops, massages, etc, so that the brain learns that these places are for healing”.

This can help change a person’s beliefs and inner dialogue around what doctors and hospitals are really for, says Marny – healing, treatment, curing, support, assistance and
so on.

Distract yourself while you're waiting

Instead of sitting around pondering what’s coming, take a book or listen to a podcast while you wait to see the doctor. Also, “make sure you stay physically active if possible and learn some deep breathing exercises before you go into the doctor/hospital to help turn down your fight-or-flight response,” suggests Marny. Deep breathing has been shown to increase feelings of calmness and wellbeing and reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones in the blood. 

Book appointments for lower-stress times

Consider the timing of your appointment, both in terms of your own emotional wellbeing and also busier and quieter times in the waiting area. For example, if you tend to be calmer in the morning, try to book in early appointments. If you’re more anxious early, opt for afternoon bookings.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

In partnership with

Dr Marny Lishman

Marny Lishman is a qualified psychologist who believes the challenges many people face are due to their lack of knowledge surrounding the mindset and lifestyle balance required to live a healthy, satisfying and fulfilling life. She is passionate about teaching the tools and techniques to promote a healthy mindset for better wellbeing and more success. Marny is partial to soy chai lattes and is on a mission to find Australia’s best avocado smash.