Managing anxiety around medical procedures
If you have pulmonary hypertension, you will undergo regular tests to monitor your condition and it’s likely you underwent a series of tests leading up to your diagnosis too.
If you get nervous or anxious about these tests or procedures, you’re not on your own. Here, trainee psychologist Dr Gregg Rawlings explains why some us experience this fear, and how we can take control if it.
Anxiety is a normal and healthy response to situations that we perceive as threatening, distressing or uncomfortable. Experiences associated with anxiety can be worry, fear, panic and stress. Anxiety is a subjective experience, meaning how anxiety is experienced and what triggers it, will vary from person to person.
The purpose of the anxiety response is to keep us safe and help cope with the distressing situation. However, anxiety can become unhelpful, for example, when the intensity, duration and frequency affects our daily life or when we find it difficult to manage.
Medical appointments and procedures can trigger our anxiety response and therefore it is very common for people to experience some degree of anxiety. It even has a name, procedural anxiety. People can experience anxiety before, during and after medical procedures. There are lots of different factors that affect the nature of the anxiety a person will experience.
Anxiety around medical procedures can be triggered by a range of different events, such as:
- Anticipation of bad news, pain or discomfort associated with the medical treatment.
- Worrying over what could go wrong and the possible negative consequences of treatment, however unlikely.
- Feelings of uncertainty related to not knowing what to expect.
- Previously having a difficult or traumatic experience when receiving treatment. This can even lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a condition that a person can experience following a traumatic event.
The take home message is that feeling anxious, worried or nervous about medical procedures is a normal response that many, if not everyone, can identify with.
Why you should seek help if you’re struggling
Not only can the anxiety that someone experiences in response to medical procedures feel uncomfortable, distressing and unbearable, it can also result in further difficulties. For example, it may:
- Increase the likelihood of experiencing anxiety for the next appointment or trigger anxiety about other medical appointments, such as seeing the dentist.
- Affect how you feel and act during the appointment; for example, forget to ask questions or find it difficult to listen to your healthcare provider.
- Lead you to avoid making or cancelling medical appointments, negatively impacting your health and treatment.
- Affect how you feel and cope once the procedure is complete; for instance, for some people once they have left the hospital their anxiety returns to normal, while for others they may continue to experience high levels of anxiety.
- Impact on your relationships with friends and family.
The good news is, there are lots of ways to help manage anxiety in response to medical procedures.
Coping strategies for dealing with general anxiety can be very helpful, such as relaxation, slow breathing, mindfulness, distracting yourself from unhelpful thoughts and sharing your worries with others. Planning can also be a good idea; for example, knowing in advance how to get to your appointment on time, packing your bag beforehand so you don’t feel rushed on the day, and writing down questions you may have for your healthcare provider, so you don’t forget them. Try not to over plan though, because this can also be unhelpful and add to your worry.
It is also important to recognise that you don’t have to do it alone and there is help available. People’s worries and fears about medical procedures should be taken seriously and be met with empathetic, supportive and compassionate care. If you feel you are struggling with anxiety around medical procedures, please share your concerns with members of your care team.
Although such conversations can be difficult at first, in the long term it will allow you and your care team to work together to help better manage your anxiety.