How to Overcome Fear of Medical Procedures and Operations
Not many of us will escape the need for medical intervention in our lives and some of us may be unlucky enough to need an operation. For those who have fears or phobias about such things as needles, scan machines, dentists, or surgery, the very thought conjures up many frightening scenarios. Sometimes people actually refuse to go along with any of the necessary procedures even though their condition clearly and most definitely warrants it.
These particular fears are probably the most serious you can have, because in the worst case scenario your life may depend on your decisions and not those of the professionals. Your fears can prevent a proper diagnosis and therefore prevent the correct treatment.
How Did My Fears Start?
There are some common reasons why a person has developed irrational fears. Having already had a bad experience can be enough to start up a fear or phobia and is perhaps the most usual reason. Seeing someone else having a bad experience or hearing about bad experiences are also enough to get an overactive mind thinking negatively. It may be that you are already a generally anxious person or have an anxiety disorder and these kind of fears simply crept into the equation. Obsessional thinking is often a part of an anxiety disorder.
Dental Fears (Dentophobia)
I think anyone who says they love going to the dentists is probably fibbing! It’s not pleasant lying back in the dentist’s chair with your mouth wide open and having someone prod your pain. Having a long needle inserted into your mouth, the sound of a drill and even the smell of the place can feel so unpleasant. Many people who mildly fear dental treatment will just go through with it and be glad when it is over but some people fear to the point of phobia and refuse treatment.
How to Help Your Dental Fears
- First and foremost, talk to your dentist. The dentist is well aware that people have dental phobias. If he doesn’t know he can’t help you. He wants you to feel OK so that his job is made easier too. The last thing he wants is a panic attack during treatment and will work with you to accommodate your fears.
- Ask if you can take along an ipod or mp3 player. Listening to soothing music or any music that calms you whilst the dentist is treating you can help tremendously.
- Ask your dentist if he is willing to work with you on gradual exposure to your fears. Gradual exposure is the therapy of choice for phobias and is usually very successful. See table below for details.
- Hypnotherapy is worth a try for helping with phobias.
- As a last resort, although it is not actually conquering your dental fear, you could arrange with your dentist that you take a small dose of tranquiliser before the treatment such as valium or xanax. This is actually a fairly common practice for those who have a deep fear of dentists.
Fear of Needles (Trypanophobia)
This is also a common phobia and is not confined to taking blood as many people tend to presume. It can include any form of needle procedure such as injections and cannula insertions. Anticipatory anxiety is severe for people who suffer with this phobia and by the time the procedure is actually going to happen, full panic attacks and even fainting can follow. So what can you do to help this phobia?
How to Help Your Needle Phobia
- Hypnotherapy - working out why you became fearful of needles may be advantageous and hypnotherapy may help you work through this phobia, starting from the first time you felt fearful.
- TFT - Thought-Field Therapy – a technique that requires you to tap on certain meridian points whilst thinking about your fear.
- EMDR– Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is another therapy that sometimes works with phobias.
- Gradual exposure to desensitize you is another way forward, which you can get a friend to help with or ask the help of a therapist.
- If you have no success and because the use of needles is sometimes vital for your health, you can buy anesthetic gels for your own use. Hospitals and clinics tend to use these gels readily on children to numb the area where the needle is inserted. If you don’t have any of your own you could always ask for some prior to your appointment.
Fear of Scan Machines
Imaging machines, in which you have to lie flat in an enclosed space, sometimes for a considerable time, bring panic, especially to those who already have claustrophobia. Many people simply refuse to go in them or ask to come out of them in a very short space of time. CT scanning machines have tunnels considerably larger than MRI scanners but both are very frightening to a claustrophobic. It is such a common fear that patients are even given a panic button for an MRI scan! I have heard that there are now open and upright MRI scanners, but there appears to be limited availability of these in the UK.
How is a CT Scan Performed?
What Happens With an MRI Scan?
How to Help Your Fear of CT and MRI Scanners
- Talk to both the doctor ordering the scan and the technician about your fears, preferably well before your appointment date. The more they know, the more they can advise the best way to handle your scan.
- Ask if you may use an ipod and listen to relaxing music, especially for CT scans (headphones or earplugs are used with MRI scans to drown out machine noise). You could use an ipod whilst waiting to get into the scanner for general relaxation if they are not allowed inside the machine.
- CBT- Cognitive - Behavioural Therapy may help you to look at the root cause, that of claustrophobia. Changing the way you think and behave in enclosed spaces is ultimately going to stop a fear of these machines.
- A tranquilliser to calm you such as valium or xanax may be taken prior to the scan and you should ask before you attend.
- Keep your eyes closed and try to imagine you are somewhere completely different, though this is more difficult with an MRI scan because of the noises produced during its operation.
- If you can, try tilting your head back so that you may see the technician or attending professional (you may have to ask if someone can stay in the scan room with you). It’s difficult but if your scan doesn’t take too long it will help reassure you.
Fear of Surgery (Tomophobia)
There are many logical reasons to fear surgery so don’t be too hard on yourself! Many people fear waking up during the operation, whilst others fear the anesthetic. Some panic at the thought of being unconscious, whilst others may fear the pain immediately following the operation. Needles, anesthetics, masks, gowns, incisions, loss of control and pain produce fear in so many of us, but there are some things we can try to make the experience less fearful.
How to Help Your Fear of Surgery
Again, talk to everyone concerned and make sure all professionals know of your fears. Trust is important to someone who fears. The anaesthetist is the person who not only gives you the anaesthetic but who will be at the head end of the operating table watching your vital signs. It is usual to speak to the anaesthetist before your operation, so spill! Sharing fears is very reassuring. Examples of what to discuss are:
- Your preference for how the anaesthetic is administered i.e. mask or intravenous.
- Your preference for pain relief may be important to you as not everyone wants to be knocked out with powerful analgesics (control issues).
- You may prefer not to lie flat and could ask for an extra pillow in the pre-operative room.
- If not offered, ask in advance for some pre-operation medication to relax you.
- Bets of all, request that the anaesthetist does not give you a running commentary of what he is doing. This works well for those who are afraid of receiving the anaesthetic and afraid of falling unconscious.
- You are usually allowed to take an ipod into the pre-operative room so do ask and make sure you have something very reassuring and calm to listen to.
- Wherever possible, opt for keyhole surgery. You would be surprised how much invasive surgery is now carried out this way. I have just had a kidney removed with this technique and am glad that I did. You have minimal scarring and tend to have a quicker recovery time with keyhole surgery.
We don't have a tooth extracted every week and we don't have an operation every week either. If we can not cure ourselves of these medical fears then all is not lost. We can learn how to cope better and this is usually by taking back some control. Communication, distraction and using options to relax us will help us to go through with the required medical and surgical treatment necessary for our good health.