There are many reasons people put off seeing the doctor. From time constraints to cost, from the the stereotypical Kiwi (“she’ll be right”) attitude to plain embarrassment.
Now a new report from Britain has shown that a third of people who consciously put off seeing their doctor do so for fear of finding out bad news.
Kiwis may harbour the same worry, though it’s not as common here, says Bastian Seidel from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP). He says people who have a genuine fear of bad news feel so bombarded with “scary” health information, they assume they’re automatically “doomed”.
Hence, they prefer to gamble with their health and remain in denial, rather than face their concerns head on.
That isn’t exactly a smart move, warns Phillip Parente, Director of Cancer Services at Eastern Health. Early intervention for conditions such as cancer may lead to better outcomes.
“Delaying seeing the doctor can worsen your condition, which means the condition is further advanced… and it’s actually harder to treat.”
In some cases, this can mean a cancer that could have been cured if detected early, can become non-curable.
And yet, fear of finding out bad news can be so powerful, it can eclipse such common sense.
That’s because we tend to engage in the behaviour that is least threatening to us, says clinical psychologist Kirstin Bouse.
“So if someone isn’t going to the doctor, it’s because they’re far more comfortable dealing with the anxiety that comes from ‘not knowing’ than they are with everything they’d have to deal with in terms of the imagined outcome.”
The British report found that men are the worst culprits. Parente agrees, saying it tends to be young to middle-aged men who prefer to live with their worries rather than address them.
But you can overcome this fear, reassures Bouse.
Start by delving deeper into its roots. Talking to a close friend about your concerns can also help get the ball rolling. Then, write down your symptoms – along with your worries.
As you list your medical concerns, remind yourself that there are probably many possible reasons for your problems – not just the one that scares you.
If you don’t have any worrying health concerns right now, this is the time to find a good GP (if you don’t have one already). Seidel says that having a GP you trust is pivotal for overcoming your fear.
Hunting for a doctor when you’re well can also desensitise you to medical visits, notes Bouse.
But if you’re currently plagued by worrying symptoms and are avoiding your doctor because you don’t want your worst fears confirmed, Parente has some good news.
While you may be sure your symptoms are diagnostic of something life-threatening, the converse is usually true.
Take a lump, for example.
He says it’s common for people to find a lymph node that is swollen in response to an infection (which is a normal reaction to illness, and one that generally resolves on its own).
“They immediately think it could be something sinister.”
Instead of seeing a doctor, these people try to shove their worries into the back of their minds, in the hopes they can just ignore it. Yet, burying their head in the sand merely allows their fear to fester.
“They will sweat on it, and become more anxious,” Parente notes.
Eventually, they may build up the courage to make an appointment, all the while bracing for the worst.
“Seeing the doctor might actually reassure them that nothing’s wrong, and make them feel a whole lot better.”