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When a Doctor Suggested My IBS Was ‘Just My Anxiety’

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I have had an incredible amount of positive experiences with health care providers. They are usually kind and patient which makes such a difference when you are someone who is overwhelmed by every element of a doctor’s surgery. The artificial lights, the noise, the crowds or people around me, not to mention that these are the places that hold needles — my biggest phobia. I have had the kindest nurses who have looked after me as I sob and panic over injections and blood tests — who have made sure that I didn’t feel embarrassed about the experience.

That being said, the biggest problem I have had when reaching out to doctors for help with my physical problems is that my mental health is often jumped to as the conclusion for my problems. A clear memory being the time I went to receive advice on what later became my irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). I was a teenager, going to the doctors by myself for one of the first times. My anxiety was already on high alert and I was feeling very self-conscious. It was a different doctor, not somebody who knew me; I was just medical history on a piece of paper. As I explained my problems, the doctor turned to my screen, read my mental health history and said: “Are you sure it’s not just your anxiety?” I felt shocked. Stomach problems are a common part of anxiety and I am well-acquainted with my own “anxiety tummy” but I knew this isn’t what it was. I do think it is important to consider how mental health affects our physical well-being, but I also think it is important to take each claim seriously. I may have been a teenage girl with anxiety, but I still deserved the same investigation and consideration into what could be causing these problems.

The real takeaway that I have from this experience as a now-23-year-old is that the problem was never the idea that my anxiety could have caused my stomach problems. Instead, the problem here was that, although it was clear to the doctor that I did have mental health problems, this was not considered when I was talked to. I felt talked down to and embarrassed for bringing up a problem. I didn’t feel as though I was taken seriously and I avoided the doctors for a long while following the experience.

As I said, there have been so many positive experiences with doctors and from these I can summarize what would have made my experience that day better. Firstly, as anxiety will often make you second-guess everything you do, it is important that health care providers take everything you say seriously and with understanding. Another thing to consider is not to rush; it is a quick pace environment, but allowing a little bit more time may allow the individual to feel more at ease in explaining what is wrong. Thirdly, talk things through and offer clear instructions or next steps. These can put a mind at ease and help the individual feel proactive. Simple things can make the experience calmer and subsequently more effective.

However, there are things we can do as people living with anxiety to make our experience less distressing. Things I have found very useful over time are:

Firstly, I have the need to be early for appointments. However, instead of going straight into the setting, spend some time outside till you are closer to the time. It will limit the amount of time in a stressful environment and allow you to calm yourself in the fresh air, all while being close enough to the appointment that you shouldn’t feel worried about being late.

Another tip is to bring headphones and calming tools into the waiting room with you. Blocking overstimulation can be really beneficial in stopping the whole experience from being overwhelming.

Finally, I would suggest writing things down in advance of your appointment. This means you won’t forget anything important, it will allow you to be clearer in what you need to say and if you do become overwhelmed, it will still provide the health care provider with some guidance about the support you need.

Getty Images photo via Madrolly

Originally published: March 5, 2021
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