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What is Iatrophobia

Last updated on 3rd May 2023

Iatrophobia, an extreme fear of doctors and medical care, is a type of specific phobia that can have serious consequences for the individual. Iatrophobia can result in physiological and psychological symptoms when the individual attends any place or situation where they could encounter doctors or receive medical care, including GP surgeries, clinics and hospitals.

Iatrophobia can result in avoidance behaviours, whereby the individual refuses to see a doctor or seek medical care, even if they have an illness or injury or require treatment.

Although many people feel some fear or anxiety in relation to doctors, it is thought that less than 3% of the population is diagnosed with iatrophobia, approximately 2 million people across the UK.

Today, we are going to look at iatrophobia in more detail, including common symptoms, triggers and treatments.

What is iatrophobia?

Iatrophobia is an extreme and overwhelming fear of doctors, medical tests and medical care. Although many people feel some anxiety or fear before visiting the doctor or undergoing medical tests, someone with iatrophobia will experience fear, anxiety or panic that is intense, irrational and overwhelming. Their fear will also be out of proportion with the situation and the potential risks.

Although doctors are necessary to our health and are frequently involved in saving lives or improving people’s quality of life, some people associate doctors and medical tests with pain, illness, fear and death. This can create negative and harmful thought patterns that result in negative feelings, such as fear, anxiety, panic and dread.

Although some level of fear and anxiety before visiting a doctor or having medical treatment is normal, someone with iatrophobia will:

  • Experience extreme fear, panic or anxiety when faced with the possibility of seeing a doctor or having medical tests or treatment.
  • Experience feelings of fear, panic or anxiety that are difficult to control or manage.
  • Avoid doctors and places they could encounter doctors, even in situations where they require medical treatment, are in pain or there may be a risk to their health or wellbeing.
  • Experience anticipatory anxiety or worry at the possibility of going to the doctor or having medical care.
Fear of doctors

Iatrophobia can be so severe that it causes a person to refuse to seek medical attention or treatment even if they are seriously ill or injured. Failure to seek treatment or visit your doctor can result in a person ignoring symptoms or trying to treat their illness or injury at home. Even mild illnesses, injuries or infections can progress to become serious and life-threatening health issues. This can have a negative impact on your health and overall wellbeing.

Even if you know that your phobia of doctors and medical care is irrational and not in proportion to the potential risks, you may be unable to control your psychological and physiological response to your triggers. A person will not be classified as having iatrophobia if they experience one occurrence or situation where they were scared to visit a doctor. The symptoms of iatrophobia must have been present for at least six months to be classified as a phobia.

Iatrophobia may be connected to one or more specific fears relating to doctors and medical care, such as:

A fear of dying

Many people associate doctors and medical treatment with serious illnesses and death. This could be for a variety of reasons, such as a previous experience involving doctors, the death of a loved one following medical intervention or because of something they have seen in the media. Someone may fear visiting a doctor in case they receive bad news or are diagnosed with a serious illness that could result in their death.

A fear of pain

Some people associate doctors and medical treatments with pain. They may be afraid of feeling pain, either at the time of the procedure or in the hours and days that follow. They may also be afraid of receiving treatment or a diagnosis that involves long-term pain. Someone who is particularly sensitive to pain, has had a previously painful experience involving medical treatment or negatively associates doctors with pain may experience a fear of pain connected to doctors that develops into a phobia.

A fear of blood

A person who has haemophobia, an extreme fear of blood, may fear situations that they associate with blood or where there is a risk of bleeding. Because some medical treatments can result in some amount of bleeding, this can result in fear and anxiety connected to doctors and medical care, which can develop into iatrophobia. This may be more likely to happen if they previously bled during medical treatment or if they saw blood in a medical setting, such as a hospital.

A fear of needles

A person who is scared of needles or has trypanophobia, an extreme fear of needles in a medical setting, may also develop a fear of places and situations where they may encounter needles, including hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries. They may also fear doctors and nurses, as these are the people who use needles in a medical setting.

A fear of medical tests and treatments

Some people develop a phobia of doctors because they are fearful of the medical tests and treatments they associate with doctors. This could include medical tests such as blood tests, check-ups and MRIs and other imaging scans and medical treatment, such as surgery, the resetting of bones and cancer treatment. The fear, anxiety and panic they feel when faced with having medical tests or treatment could result in a phobia that prevents them from visiting the doctor or going to places they associate with doctors, such as hospitals, even if they do not require treatment.

A fear of physical examinations

There are many reasons why a person could fear physical examinations. It could be that their fear is connected to the chance of the doctor finding something of concern, such as a lump. In some cases, a previous traumatic experience such as assault, sexual violence or rape can cause a person to develop a fear around people touching them or a fear of feeling vulnerable or out of control. This can result in a fear of physical examinations.

Iatrophobia is a type of specific phobia, which is a lasting, overwhelming and unreasonable fear of a specific object, situation, activity or person, in this case, an overwhelming fear of doctors, medical tests and medical care.

Iatrophobia is often connected to and can occur in conjunction with other phobias, such as:

  • Nosocomephobia: An extreme fear of hospitals.
  • Haemophobia: An extreme fear of blood.
  • Thanatophobia: An extreme fear of death.
  • Pharmacophobia: An extreme fear of medication.
  • Trypanophobia: An extreme fear of needles in a medical setting.
  • Tomophobia: An extreme fear of surgical procedures or medical interventions.
  • Algophobia: An extreme fear of physical pain.
  • Nosophobia: An extreme fear of getting an illness or disease.
  • Dentophobia: An extreme fear of dentists.
  • Mysophobia/ Germaphobia: An extreme fear of germs.

How common is iatrophobia?

Although accurate statistics of how many people have iatrophobia are not available, studies have shown that approximately a third of people avoid going to the doctor, even if they think they might need medical care. However, significantly fewer people have an actual diagnosis of iatrophobia, with less than 3% of the population diagnosed with a phobia of doctors and medical care.

Negative thoughts and feelings towards doctors can occur on a spectrum, ranging from low levels of fear and anxiety to severe fear, panic and anxiety that can impact your ability to function in your day-to-day life and can impact your decision-making, resulting in avoidance behaviours and affect your overall health and wellbeing. This can make it difficult to determine exactly how many people are experiencing iatrophobia and how many people are experiencing normal levels of fear.

Similarly to other phobias, it is thought that iatrophobia is significantly underdiagnosed. It could be that some people with the condition do not realise that their symptoms are severe and that they are experiencing a phobia. Many people with iatrophobia never seek a diagnosis for their condition and instead engage in avoidance behaviours where they avoid going to the doctor or any places where they could encounter doctors.

However, similar to other medical-based phobias, cases of iatrophobia appear to be on the rise following the Covid-19 pandemic. This could be for a number of reasons. During the pandemic, the public was frequently warned against visiting hospitals and other medical settings in case they caught Covid-19. Many medical appointments were cancelled, and people only saw doctors virtually or spoke to them over the phone, which can raise a person’s anxiety surrounding doctors. There were also a lot of stories and conspiracy theories spread online about Covid-19 and illnesses and deaths connected to the vaccine. This caused many people to become afraid of doctors and the medical world.

Who is at risk of iatrophobia?

People of all ages and demographics are diagnosed with iatrophobia. Although anyone can develop a phobia of doctors, medical tests and medical care, certain risk factors can increase your likelihood of developing the condition, including:

  • Currently or previously having a chronic or life-threatening health condition or being in generally poor health.
  • Experiencing barriers to your care, such as being unable to speak or understand English.
  • Experiencing socioeconomic disadvantages, such as being from a low-income household, living in a deprived area or being poorly educated.
  • Having a previous negative, painful or traumatic experience involving doctors or medical care.
  • Having another related phobia, such as nosocomephobia or trypanophobia.
  • Having a history of anxiety, depression, panic attacks or another relevant mental health disorder.
  • Having a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with iatrophobia.
  • Having a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with another phobia.
  • Being exposed to the fear of doctors and medical care during childhood or adolescence.
  • Previously or currently experiencing physical, emotional or sexual assault, violence, abuse or bullying.
  • Having close family or friends who are seriously ill, elderly or dying or have recently died, particularly if you accompanied them to medical appointments.
  • Having a substance use disorder.
  • Being a naturally more anxious or fearful person.
  • Having a lack of social support.
  • Having a lack of trust in medical professionals.
  • Experience high levels of stress or a significant life stressor.

Similarly to other phobias, iatrophobia is more likely to develop in childhood or adolescence, with an additional spike of cases in the early to mid-twenties. However, iatrophobia can develop at any age, particularly if it is initially triggered by a traumatic event.

It is important to bear in mind that even if you have several of the risk factors above, this does not necessarily mean you will develop iatrophobia. Some people develop the condition even if they have no risk factors, whereas others have several of the above risk factors and never develop the condition. For example, you may already be diagnosed with trypanophobia and may have also experienced physical abuse, but you never develop a fear of doctors.

Woman with fear of hospitals

How to deal with iatrophobia

Some people with iatrophobia think that the best way to deal with their phobia is to avoid their triggers, specifically by avoiding doctors and places they might encounter doctors. However, although you may be able to avoid doctors on a day-to-day basis, there is a high likelihood that there will be an event or situation at some point that necessitates that you visit a doctor or seek medical care.

Failure to address your phobia could result in you avoiding life-saving treatment or preventative care. It could also result in a previously mild illness or injury becoming more serious and difficult to treat.  Additionally, if you are ever rushed to the hospital in the future and require urgent medical care, your phobia could result in physiological and psychological responses that prevent you from receiving treatment or could result in more severe phobia symptoms.

There are some coping and calming strategies that you can employ which can help you to reduce and alleviate the symptoms of your phobia and reduce the impact it has on your day-to-day life and overall wellbeing. They can also help you to reduce avoidance behaviours and help you to manage your phobia more successfully. Coping and calming strategies can be both short term, meaning you can implement them in the moment when you are experiencing symptoms of your phobia to help alleviate your symptoms, and long term, meaning you can engage in them regularly to help improve your phobia long term and reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms.

Some long-term and short-term strategies for dealing with iatrophobia include:

Learn about your phobia

Think about what initially caused the onset of your symptoms and caused you to develop iatrophobia to allow you to address the root cause of your fear. Thinking about what your triggers are is also recommended to help you to understand your fear of doctors and medical care and rationalise your thoughts and emotions. Learning about your phobia can help you to manage your symptoms more effectively and address any negative patterns of thought that exist around doctors.

Educate yourself

Learning about what different doctors do on a day-to-day basis and the types of care and treatment they offer can help you to rationalise your thoughts. If you are concerned about certain aspects of medical care or specific treatments, learning about how they work and what you can expect can also help you to remove your fear of the unknown. You could also look at some statistics of the number of lives that are saved every year by doctors or by earlier diagnosis and the number of successful treatments that are administered. Focusing on positive information and statistics can help you to eliminate any negative thoughts and feelings you have attached to doctors and medical care.

Create a fear ladder

A fear ladder can help you to analyse your fear of doctors and medical care and determine which places, people, objects or situations create more severe fear, anxiety and panic compared to others. A fear ladder can also help you to organise your triggers from least severe to most severe. For example, your fear ladder could look like this:

  • 1 = Going to the doctor or a hospital because of an illness or injury.
  • 2 = Having a general check-up with a doctor.
  • 3 = Visiting a doctor or medical setting to accompany a loved one to an appointment or to visit them in hospital.
  • 4 = Going into the grounds or the car park of a GP’s surgery, clinic or hospital.
  • 5 = Speaking to a doctor on the phone.
  • 6 = Watching a video of someone having medical treatment.

Once you have created your fear ladder, you can then confront your triggers one at a time, starting at the bottom of the ladder (the situation that results in the lowest phobic response). This can help you to build up the tolerance of your triggers gradually.

Avoid negative stories about doctors or medical care

Hearing negative stories, whether on the news, on social media or from family and friends, can validate and worsen the negative thoughts and feelings you already have. Inform your family and friends of your phobia, so they can be more mindful in the future, and remove yourself from any situations where negative stories are being reported or discussed. This can prevent your fear response to your triggers from increasing.

Challenge negative thoughts and feelings

Negative thoughts can exacerbate your symptoms and worsen your phobia. Try and prevent negative thoughts or the recapping of negative memories, even if you aren’t currently facing your triggers. Remind yourself that the risks to your health and wellbeing are minimal and that you are not in danger. If you begin to experience symptoms of iatrophobia, remind yourself that the feelings will soon pass and that your fear is irrational and that doctors and medical care are designed to help, rather than harm.

Speak to your GP surgery

Informing your GP surgery of your phobia and having it added to your patient notes can be beneficial in enabling you to seek medical care in the future. Your GP could implement certain strategies, such as arranging a telephone or video consultation, visiting you at home, or allowing you to attend your appointment out of hours. This can help to keep you calm and prevent a phobic response.

Implement distraction techniques

If you are in a triggering situation or place, implementing distraction techniques can help to reduce your physiological and psychological responses to your triggers. Distraction techniques could include listening to music, reading, playing a game or watching a video. Focusing on something external, such as counting the number of objects in a room or the number of passing cars can also help to keep you calm. Distraction techniques can be implemented while visiting the doctor or in medical settings.

Implement visualisation techniques

Visualisation has been found to be an effective coping strategy for reducing the symptoms of phobias. When faced with your triggers, visualise a place or memory that keeps you calm or elicits positive emotions to help you to alleviate your symptoms. Successful visualisation techniques include recalling some of your favourite memories or visualising yourself in your favourite place or a calming environment.

Practise deep breathing techniques

Deep breathing exercises are a long-term strategy that you can practise regularly, as part of your daily routine. They can help to keep you calm when faced with your triggers in the future. Deep breathing exercises have been proven to be an effective way of lowering stress levels, relieving tension in your body and reducing anxiety and panic. Deep breathing sends a message to your brain to relax and calm down. It can also help you to control your central nervous system, which is central to your phobic responses.

Practise yoga, meditation or mindfulness

Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are all long-term strategies that can teach you how to control your breathing and your body’s response to your triggers. This can help you to feel more in control and calm and reduce the physiological and psychological responses you may have when faced with doctors and medical care in the future. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness can improve your phobia over a period of time, decrease your stress levels and improve your overall wellbeing.

Implement lifestyle changes

Multiple lifestyle factors have been found to worsen the symptoms of phobias, including iatrophobia. For example, lack of sleep and high levels of stress can worsen anxiety and make your symptoms more likely to occur. Implementing a sleep routine and taking steps to reduce your everyday stress can help to reduce the severity of your phobia both short term and long term. Other lifestyle factors that could help you deal with your phobia include eating a healthy, balanced diet and increasing the amount of exercise you do. In the lead-up to visiting a doctor, avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugar and other stimulants, as these have been found to increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which can result in a more severe phobic response.

What triggers Iatrophobia

What triggers iatrophobia?

Iatrophobia usually has different triggers for different people. Your triggers can vary, depending on what initially caused you to develop a phobia, your perception of danger, the severity of your symptoms and your current mental health and mindset.

Some of the most common triggers of iatrophobia include:

  • Going to a doctor’s surgery, clinic, hospital or another medical setting.
  • Being told you need to see a doctor or require medical tests or treatment.
  • Becoming ill, obtaining an injury or experiencing symptoms that make you feel like you may need to see a doctor.
  • Finding something unusual on your body, such as a mole or lump.
  • Thinking about going to the doctor or having medical care or recalling a traumatic memory involving doctors.
  • Seeing a picture or video of doctors or medical treatments.
  • Hearing negative stories in the news, on social media or from family and friends.
  • Seeing something you associate with doctors or medical care, such as a white coat or a stethoscope.
  • Smelling something you associate with medical settings, such as antiseptic.
  • Being in close proximity to a medical setting.
  • Someone you care about becoming ill or obtaining an injury.

What are the symptoms of iatrophobia?

The symptoms of iatrophobia can vary from person to person, with some people experiencing mild symptoms and others experiencing more severe symptoms. Some people also find that their phobia is triggered more easily, and they experience symptoms more frequently than other people.

Because iatrophobia can have several triggers, with different people, places, objects and situations triggering a phobic response in different people, you may find that there are some times when your symptoms are more severe than others.

The occurrence and severity of your symptoms can vary depending on your triggers, your perceived risk and threat of danger, your current mental and emotional health and wellbeing and any coping or calming strategies you have implemented.

Symptoms usually occur when you are faced with your triggers or when you are thinking about visiting a doctor. You may also experience anticipatory symptoms in the lead-up to visiting a doctor or having medical treatment.

The symptoms of iatrophobia can be similar to the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. The symptoms can be both physiological and psychological and can include:

Physiological Symptoms:

  • Dizziness or light-headedness.
  • Rapid breathing, shortness of breath, hyperventilating or feeling like you cannot breathe.
  • A rapid heart rate, heart palpitations or feeling like your heart is pounding.
  • A dry mouth.
  • Nausea, vomiting or stomach upset.
  • Unusual or excessive sweating.
  • Shaking or trembling.
  • White coat hypertension, whereby your blood pressure increases and your blood pressure readings are higher when you are in healthcare settings.
  • Chills, hot flushes or unusual paleness.
  • Unusual or severe headaches.
  • Insomnia or sleeping difficulties, particularly in the lead-up to going to the doctor.
  • A loss of appetite, particularly in the lead-up to going to the doctor.
  • Unusual sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures.
  • Muscle tension.
  • A choking sensation or feeling like something is stuck in your throat.
  • Tightening in your chest, chest pain or feeling like something is stuck in your chest.
  • Feeling confused or disorientated.
  • Numbness or tingling in your body.

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Extreme and overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety or panic.
  • Extreme feelings of dread or terror.
  • Obsessively checking for signs of illness, such as checking your heart rate and blood pressure or looking for lumps.
  • Feeling like you are out of control of the situation.
  • Experiencing nightmares about going to the doctor or unusual nightmares in the lead-up to going to the doctor.
  • Anticipatory anxiety in the lead-up to going to the doctor.
  • Feelings of anger, agitation or irritability.
  • Having the urge to run away or hide.
  • Feeling defenceless or vulnerable.
  • Feeling trapped and unable to escape.
  • Feeling detached from reality or from yourself.
  • Being unable to function normally when faced with your triggers.
  • Being unable to control your negative thoughts or feelings, even if you are aware that they are out of proportion with the danger.
  • Having a sense of impending doom.
  • Feeling like you are going to die.

Some people with iatrophobia engage in avoidance behaviours, whereby they refuse to visit a doctor or have medical care. They may ignore signs of illness or make an appointment but then refuse to attend or enter the examination room. They might also worry excessively that something could happen that will result in them needing to visit a doctor, even if they are currently in good health. This could cause them to excessively check their bodies for signs of ill health or they may become obsessed with minor ailments and fervently research any mild symptoms they experience.

Causes of Iatrophobia

What causes iatrophobia?

There are many possible causes of iatrophobia, and people can develop a fear of doctors and medical care for different reasons. Some people can identify one clear reason why they developed iatrophobia, whereas other people find that multiple factors contributed to them developing a phobia.

Some people with iatrophobia find it difficult to determine exactly what caused them to develop a fear of doctors. However, being aware of the origin of your phobia can help you to address the root cause and any negative thought processes or feelings that are attached to the initial onset of your phobia.

Some of the most common causes of iatrophobia are:

A negative or traumatic experience

A previously negative, traumatic or painful experience involving doctors or medical care can result in you developing a phobia. The experience may have occurred during childhood or adulthood. A traumatic experience could include previously having sub-standard care, a negative experience with a doctor where you felt judged, trivialised or not believed or where the doctor acted negatively towards you, or a traumatic or painful experience involving a doctor. Your experience may also have been indirect, meaning it happened to someone else. For example, if you witnessed someone else in extreme pain or distress during medical treatment or if they died while in hospital, this could cause you to develop iatrophobia.

Having a chronic, long-term or life-threatening condition

A person who has, or has previously had, a chronic, long-term or life-threatening condition such as diabetes, heart disease, epilepsy, a mental health condition or cancer may fear going to the doctor in case they are given bad news or told their condition has worsened. They may also fear receiving medical care and tests because they associate them with pain or remember the adverse effects that treatment such as chemotherapy had on their life. Somebody who had a health condition during childhood that resulted in multiple doctor visits and/or tests and treatment may be more likely to develop a phobia.

Previously experiencing sexual or physical assault or abuse, rape or violence

A traumatic experience such as assault or rape, whether in childhood or adulthood, can result in a person developing iatrophobia. This could have been a one-off experience or a repetitive cycle of abuse. The traumatic experience can result in a fear of losing control, being vulnerable or defenceless, people touching them or them undergoing a medical procedure. During the time they were assaulted or abused, they may also have feared doctors in case the doctor thought they were lying or in case the abuse was discovered. All of these fears can result in someone developing iatrophobia.

A negative portrayal of doctors and medical treatment

Negative portrayals and perceptions of doctors and medical care can come from a variety of sources, such as:

  • The news: Negative stories about hospital failures, botched treatments and medical malpractice can cause someone to develop fear and anxiety. Newspapers and news channels report and sensationalise stories where doctors or nurses purposely or accidentally killed their patients, and this can cause some people to fear medical staff.
  • Friends and family: Hearing stories about someone’s negative experience at the doctor’s surgery or in a hospital can cause you to fear experiencing the same thing.
  • Social media: Social media is known to spread stories quickly, both true and false ones. Seeing negative stories online shared multiple times can make them more believable and mean you are exposed to the same negative information multiple times.
  • Popular culture: TV shows, films and books can all create or add to someone’s fear of doctors. They may dramatise medical care, portray evil or villainous doctors or show exaggerated injuries, illnesses and deaths.

Fear rumination

Fear rumination is when you engage in a repetitive negative thought process and persistently and/or repetitively recap a traumatic or scary experience involving doctors or medical care. Over time, these thoughts and memories can become increasingly upsetting and intrusive and can make you remember the experience as being more traumatic, painful or scary than it was in reality. Fear rumination reinforces your natural fear responses and can result in you developing a phobia of doctors and medical care.

A learned phobia

Known as an observational learning experience, many people learn to feel fear or anxiety because of their exposure to another person’s fear or anxiety. A learned phobia is more likely to occur if you are exposed to the fear during childhood or adolescence. If a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, has iatrophobia, you are more likely to develop the condition yourself.

Exposure to negative information

Known as an informational learning experience, this is where you are exposed to information about doctors that scares you. This information can then create a fear response which can develop into a phobia, either immediately or over time. For example, hearing statistics about the number of unnecessary deaths or medical malpractice cases that occur every year can cause you to attach negative connotations to doctors and medical care.

Experiencing significant stress

Significant, long-term stress can result in a disproportionate fear response or an inability to manage intense situations. This can make it more likely that you will develop a phobia. A stressful and distressing event, such as a death, can also trigger a phobia, as people may be less able to manage their emotions and thought processes when experiencing grief. If you are exposed to a fear of doctors or have a negative experience with doctors while experiencing significant stress, this is more likely to develop into a phobia.

Having a mental health condition or a substance use disorder

Someone with a mental health condition, such as schizophrenia or depression, or a substance use disorder, such as alcohol or drug addiction, may begin to fear doctors because they fear being judged, being forced to take medication or treatment that they don’t want or being sent into a rehab, treatment centre or psychiatric unit. Some people with a mental health condition or substance use disorder who have children develop iatrophobia as they are scared a doctor will take them away from their children or refer them to social services.

How is iatrophobia diagnosed?

Many people feel fear, anxiety or nervousness when going to see the doctor or before starting medical treatment. Because negative thoughts and feelings surrounding medical care are common, someone with iatrophobia may not realise that their fear of doctors is extreme and overwhelming and out of proportion to the true risks. If someone is unaware that they are experiencing a phobia, they are less likely to seek a diagnosis.

If you experience negative thoughts and feelings when visiting the doctor or thinking about going to see a doctor, you may be experiencing iatrophobia.

To determine whether to seek a diagnosis, consider if:

  • Your fear and anxiety are out of proportion to the actual risks.
  • Your fear impacts your ability to function in your everyday life.
  • There is a negative impact on your quality of life, your mental health or your overall wellbeing.
  • Your symptoms occur when you are seeing a doctor or when you think about going to see the doctor.
  • Your fear or anxiety causes you to avoid certain places or situations.

Your first step in seeking a diagnosis will be to see your GP. Although it is unlikely that your GP will be the one to make a formal diagnosis, they will look at a variety of things before making a referral.

Including:

  • Your symptoms, including what your symptoms are, how frequently they occur and how severe they are.
  • Your medical history.
  • Any medication or supplements you take.
  • Any medication or supplements you take.
  • Whether you have a family history of phobias.

If your iatrophobia prevents you from visiting your GP, you can arrange a telephone or video consultation or speak to your GP in an environment you are comfortable in, such as your home, with a trusted person present. If this is still not something you are comfortable with, your GP can make a direct referral to a psychologist or mental health professional.

If your phobia necessitates it, your appointment with the psychologist can also be conducted virtually. As well as looking at some of the things mentioned above, the psychologist will also look at when your symptoms began, what caused the initial onset and how much your fear interferes with your everyday life or your decision-making.

To diagnose you with iatrophobia, the psychologist will compare your symptoms with the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias.

Your symptoms will need to fit into seven key criteria, listed below:

1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either when you visit a doctor or at other times, such as when you think about doctors.
2. Exposure to your triggers leads to an immediate anxiety response in the majority of situations.
3. The fear is excessive and disproportionate to the threat, and this is recognised by you.
4. You avoid seeing doctors or having medical care where possible. If you see a doctor, you experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.
5. The anticipation of visiting a doctor and the avoidance behaviours you may implement can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.
6. Your fear has lasted for a minimum of six months.
7. Your phobia is not associated with another disorder or mental health condition.

If your symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria, you will receive a diagnosis of iatrophobia. Depending on the severity of your phobia, you may be offered treatment.

Treatment of Iatrophobia

How is iatrophobia treated?

Not all people with iatrophobia will require treatment. If your symptoms are mild, you have implemented successful coping strategies or your phobia doesn’t significantly impact your day-to-day life and your wellbeing, you may not require official treatment. However, because a fear of doctors and medical care could have a significant impact on your health and wellbeing and result in avoidance behaviours, treatment will likely be recommended.

There are multiple different types of treatment available for iatrophobia. A personalised and effective treatment plan based on the cause of your phobia, your symptoms and your triggers will be designed.

Some of the considerations that will be made when creating your treatment plan include:

  • How severe your symptoms are and how frequently they occur.
  • What the root cause of your phobia is.
  • How significantly your phobia impacts your life.
  • Your overall health and wellbeing, including your mental health.
  • Whether your phobia allows you to work directly with a psychologist or therapist.
  • Whether you can access treatment directly, face to face.

The most common and effective treatment options for iatrophobia are:

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT):

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that has proven to be effective in treating a range of phobias. CBT aims to change the way you think about doctors and medical care and change the feelings and behaviours you experience when faced with your triggers.

CBT focuses on the existing negative thought patterns and any harmful thoughts, feelings and behaviours relating to doctors and medical care. CBT can also help you to address the root cause of your phobia and reduce your physiological and psychological responses to your triggers.

CBT sessions can be conducted individually or as part of a group.

During your sessions, you will:

  • Discuss your triggers and symptoms.
  • Explore what caused your iatrophobia.
  • Explore your fears in more detail.
  • Learn how to recognise your negative thoughts and change the way you are thinking.
  • Learn coping strategies and calming strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, distraction techniques and coping statements.

Exposure Therapy:

Also known as systematic desensitisation, exposure therapy gradually exposes you to your fears in a safe and controlled environment while utilising relaxation techniques. Gradual and repeated exposure aims to eliminate the fear associated with doctors and reduce your fear and anxiety responses so that you can eventually see doctors and seek medical care without experiencing symptoms.

To maximise the effectiveness of the therapy, you will create a fear ladder of scenarios and situations that are the least to the most triggering. Relaxation techniques will ensure you are in a relaxed and comfortable state. Your exposure will be gradual, starting with the situation that creates the least phobic response, such as watching a video of medical treatment. Once you are comfortable with this level of exposure, you will then progress to the next level. You will eventually lead up to going into a medical setting and meeting with a doctor.

Clinical Hypnotherapy:

Clinical hypnotherapy sessions use a combination of guided relaxation techniques and focused attention. They can help you to identify the root cause of your fear and help you change your thought patterns and any negative feelings you have about doctors and medical care. Hypnotherapy helps you to change your perception of doctors and reduce your phobic response.

Hypnotherapy sessions can help to reduce stress and anxiety responses by putting you in a deeply relaxed state while thinking about and talking about your phobia and your triggers. Hypnotherapy can also teach you calming strategies, such as deep breathing and relaxation techniques.

Medication:

Medication is not a common treatment option for phobias. However, it may be used if you also experience anxiety or depression alongside your phobia, or in one-off situations where you must visit a doctor and need temporary help managing your symptoms.

Some medication types that can be used are:

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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.



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