How Can Patients Cope with Medical Phobias?

pills and water
Swallowing pills can be difficult for some cancer patients and the muscle tension caused by the anxiety can make it physically hard to do.

A doctor’s visit can be stressful, but for some cancer patients, the exams and procedures that come with diagnosis and treatment can be especially anxiety-inducing. For some, the mixture of anxiety and a negative experience during a procedure can lead to the development of a medical phobia. For others, the demands of cancer treatment force them to face long term fears, which are often not based on an experience at all, but about certain aspects of the medical experience.

“Phobias and treatment-related anxieties can be managed and often overcome,” says Karen Fasciano, PsyD, clinical psychiatrist at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center and director of Dana-Farber’s Young Adult Program. Psychologists who work in medical settings use behavioral medicine to help patients with anxieties that make adhering to medical treatment more difficult.

Enclosed spaces of MRI machines, injections, accessing ports, and placing IVs can be stressful for many patients. Even swallowing pills can be difficult for some patients and the muscle tension caused by the anxiety can make it physically hard to do.

While behavioral medicine is often integrated into the care plan for pediatric cancer patients, adult patients may need to seek out help from a mental health provider if they find themselves dealing with a phobia. It’s important to speak with your doctor or care team if you are suffering from any of these phobias so you can get help and continue to follow through with recommended treatments and tests.

“Avoiding aspects of medical care that cause anxiety can make the anxiety worse,” says Fasciano, “This might seem counter intuitive but it is almost universally true.”

Just like all treatment plans, the techniques used to battle phobias differ for every cancer patient. However, most start by identifying the phobia and slowly exposing yourself to the anxious provoking stimulus. This is often done alongside teaching relaxation techniques to keep anxiety down during the exposures.

“If a person has a fear of pill swallowing, they might start by first swallowing an ice cream sprinkle, then a Tic-tac, and slowly try swallowing bigger things until they can swallow the pill itself,” says Fasciano.

Developing relaxation strategies, such as mindfulness techniques or deep breathing, can help patients when they’re feeling particularly anxious about something. Anxiety medications are also an option for patients who are just starting to cope with their phobias and can help relax a person while they confront their fear.

“While many patients may want to combat these features through therapy or relaxation techniques, medication is a reliable option for those trying to overcome a medical phobia,” says Fasciano.