Doctors are charged with caring for every aspect of our health, right down to our birthday suits and our most private mental and physical issues. It’s just part of the job for the experts, who deal with intimate details all day, every day.
However, you may feel embarrassed being up-front or vulnerable with professionals you see only a few times a year — or have just met. That may keep you from being honest during a doctor visit; some research suggests up to 81% of patients withhold details about their health habits from doctors because they don’t want to be judged or lectured.
Or you may avoid making an appointment in the first place. And that hesitation may have health consequences.
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There are many reasons why you might feel reluctant to talk with a doctor. For example:
You didn’t follow the doctor’s advice. Maybe you didn’t take medications, exercise, cut back on alcohol, lose weight, or stop smoking, as your doctor recommended. “I think a lot of patients are afraid they’ll be punished in some way. They may even lie about their self-care,” says Dr. Suzanne Salamon, associate chief of gerontology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
You feel the stigma of a condition or disease. It may be difficult to talk about sensitive health issues — such as sexual dysfunction, sexually transmitted disease, diarrhea, gas, or mental illness. “Some people feel embarrassed or ashamed about having a particular condition. They don’t want people to know about it,” Dr. Salamon says.
You’re overweight. It can be embarrassing to step on a scale, especially in a public area like the hallway of the doctor’s office.
You don’t want to disrobe. “Some people don’t want to undress because they’re shy or they’re unhappy with their body image,” Dr. Salamon says.
Avoiding doctor appointments for any reason — including embarrassment — may mean that your health will suffer.
“I know people who keep postponing going to a doctor because they’re overweight. But being overweight can lead to high blood pressure or cholesterol, which are risk factors for heart disease — just like obesity,” Dr. Salamon says. “We have good treatments for high blood pressure and cholesterol, but if a patient is too embarrassed to seek our help, we’ll be unable to diagnose and treat these conditions.”
Skipping medical care can be particularly dangerous if you have a family history of disease or if you ignore recommended health screenings, such as skin checks or a colonoscopy.
Tips to cope
It’s common to feel embarrassed about something when you’re seeing your doctor. “These feelings appear to be even more common among people who had to put off routine care during the pandemic,” says Dr. Jennifer Gatchel, a geriatric psychiatrist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “The key is to accept that your feelings are normal and address them head-on.”
Here are some ways to do that.
Do a reality check. Question whether your concerns or fears are realistic. “For example, if you’re worried your doctor will be mad at you about something, and lecture you, ask yourself if that’s ever happened before,” Dr. Gatchel says. If so, perhaps you should seek a new doctor. If not, consider that you might be overlooking alternative outcomes, such as your doctor expressing understanding and working with you to get back on track.
Talk to a trusted friend. “Getting another perspective can help,” Dr. Gatchel says. “For example, if you aren’t on track with your medications, and you’re worried a doctor will berate you, talk to a friend. The friend may be able to help you evaluate your expectations about this and provide a more neutral perspective—perhaps asking how many doses you’ve missed, and noting that they’ve also missed doses and that it’s common.”
Practice relaxation strategies before the appointment. People who get very nervous about seeing the doctor can benefit from using various relaxation techniques before the visit, including meditation, guided imagery, or even light stretching or yoga.
Advocating for yourself
Speak up at the doctor’s office when you’re feeling embarrassed. Here are ways to troubleshoot in the moment.
If you’re embarrassed because you didn’t heed advice. “It’s your body, and you can choose to follow or not follow the advice you’re given,” Dr. Salamon says. “Be up-front and explain why you haven’t done something.” Perhaps you haven’t had enough time (or enough money) to do exactly as your doctor has advised. “Maybe you’re taking too many medications and adding another is too confusing. The doctor often can help you simplify your treatments,” she says.
If you’re embarrassed about your weight. “Tell your doctor you’re sensitive about it, you’ve been struggling with it, and ask for ways to work with those feelings. For example, maybe you can have your weight measured in a private room, where no one but the medical assistant taking your weight can see the result,” Dr. Gatchel says.
If you’re uncomfortable with others in the room. “These days it’s common for another health professional to be in the room with you and your doctor. If that makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay to ask to speak with the doctor alone,” Dr. Gatchel suggests.
If you’re sensitive about a particular condition. “If you have a condition that is stigmatized, like HIV, consider going to a clinic that deals only with that condition. Your condition won’t be unique there, it will be the norm, and that may make you may feel more comfortable,” Dr. Salamon says.
If you’re shy about undressing. “Ask if you can keep your clothes on for an exam, or at least keep some of your clothes on,” Dr. Salamon says. “Or get a doctor of the same sex, which might make it easier for you.”
What else can help
Try not to beat yourself up if you feel embarrassed at the doctor’s office. Many people feel the same. You live in the real world; doctors don’t expect perfection; they have plenty of patients who have been unable to follow medical advice or to achieve a medical goal, like losing weight.
Above all, don’t avoid medical care because you fear a negative interaction with your doctor. You should be able to express your concerns, and your doctor should respond with empathy. If that doesn’t happen, it’s probably time to look for a new doctor.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. Psalm 119:7 NIV
Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. Psalm 119:2 NIV
Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Mark 11:23 NIV
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14 NIV
But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. Joshua 22:5 NIV
Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. Psalm 119:111 NIV
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 1 Peter 3:3-4 NIV
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23 NIV
As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart. Proverbs 27:19 NIV
May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed. Psalm 20:4 NIV
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” Jeremiah 17:9-10 NIV
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:13 NIV
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