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Navigating Triggers: 6 Tips To Prepare to See a New Doctor

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I circled the date on my calendar in red and gulped. I really didn’t want to do this, but I’d canceled once already and knew I needed to make this appointment. Again. Ugh. I closed my eyes as my constant companion for the past 30 years of my life, nausea, barreled into my consciousness. The date was two weeks away but already I felt a familiar feeling of dread and the telltale signs of a desperate need to hurl. Nearly crippled by fear, I demanded the immediate departure of my tears as they wrapped their salty, liquid fingers around my throat, stifling my voice.

• What is PTSD?

I swallowed hard. “Breathe, Wanda, just breathe,” I reminded myself. Several deep breaths later, I sat and began to mentally prepare myself for the appointment. I reminded myself of the things I’d learned over the past 11 years since my intensive PTSD treatment.  My intensive trauma therapy taught me right-brain strategies that helped re-engage the dual brain (right/left brain) disconnection that occurs during trauma. Advocating for myself in creative ways helps to achieve this critical re-connection.

Here’s the thing: Triggers do not discriminate and they create an illusion of power. Among many unknowns, however, this is what we DO know: triggers in and of themselves are rendered powerless if we process them in a way that returns the power to the parts of ourselves that feel most powerless.

Medical appointments have always been some of the most triggering events of my “regular” life.

  •  People in (too) close proximity to my body
  • People touching me
  • Questions I can’t answer
  • An inability to track the conversation

People with PTSD are notoriously bad medical historians because most are like me: physically present for the exam, but Wanda has left the building. Because I was not able to process the trauma around the triggers, only half of me would show up for appointments – the dissociative part that had NO memory of past medical issues or concerns (here is where an informed medical community can step in and help with a few simple steps).

Today my story is different. Through years of practice and study, I have learned the following ways to lessen (and in some cases eliminate) triggers during a doctor visit:

1.Write a letter to your doctor

This is SOP (standard operating procedure) for me. Consider writing a letter to your new doctor prior to your visit explaining that you live with PTSD/trauma triggers, what that means, and that there are certain things they can do to help alleviate/eliminate some of the triggers/responses during your visit. For me, as soon as I confirm an appointment with a new doctor, I send a letter letting them know how they can assist me in making this a successful appointment for both the doctor and me.

2. Do your research 

Find out WHO your doctor is. Online reviews really DO matter and can help you feel safer and more at ease. It can also give you an opportunity to ascertain if this particular doctor/practice/procedure has the potential to be a triggering experience and if so, how to navigate that minefield (see grounding techniques).

3. Ask for an advance visit

For certain, more difficult appointments (mammogram/gynecological/intrusive procedures) ask for an advance visit. Several years ago I had a particular appointment I was nervous about. Okay, I was SCARED. The group practice offered to let me come in to visit the facility ahead of my actual appointment to SEE that it was NOT a place I needed to fear and to get familiar with the surroundings there. It was hugely helpful in the success of my appointment a week later.

4. Ask questions

Write down any questions you have in advance of your appointment. It was always helpful for me to have a piece of paper on my bedside table or on my desk and just keep adding to it every time I thought of a new question or concern. Again, this takes the pressure off of you to remember details that could be challenging to remember in a stressful situation.

5. Do the things

Make sure you’re fed, watered and well rested. These high anxiety situations can wreak havoc on our stress levels and cause undue triggers resulting in goofy and sometimes harmful behavior. I found deep breathing techniques worked well for me even as I sat in the waiting room waiting for my name to be called.

6. Phone a friend

It’s always helpful to have someone else hear the doctor’s words. Taking a close friend can help you be sure you remember the right details about your medical history and what you need to follow through on when you get home.

Keep these ideas in mind the next time you are preparing for your first appointment … you’ve GOT this!


A version of this story originally appeared on

Photo credit: AndreyPopov/Getty Images

Originally published: November 7, 2020
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