Mar 29th 2023
Iatrophobia is an irrational and excessive fear of doctors and medical procedures, that can occur as a result of negative experiences or fear of illness. Symptoms of iatrophobia include anxiety or panic attacks and avoidance of seeking professional medical advice, but it can be treated by therapy and medication.
Iatrophobia is an excessive fear of doctors and medical care, that can cause intense feelings of anxiety and panic attacks when anticipating or attending a doctor’s appointment .
Although not specifically mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), iatrophobia is considered a specific phobia, which is in part defined by an irrational and disproportionate level of fear or anxiety when faced with a certain stimulus .
Current research on iatrophobia is limited, partially due to the fact that many people do not report or seek help for phobias, particularly iatrophobia .
Several studies have explored the variety of reasons for the avoidance of medical help, which indicate that around a third of Americans have avoided going to the doctor for troubling symptoms . However, the majority of this research discusses specific conditions, such as cancer, and involves several reasons other than iatrophobia, including low trust and financial concerns .
As such, further research is required to clarify the causes of and circumstances surrounding the development of iatrophobia .
The exact cause of iatrophobia is not known, but there are many theories relating to the risk factors of developing this fear or other specific phobias.
Research shows that there is a strong familial link associated with the development of specific phobias. People with a specific phobia have been found to be significantly more likely to have a relative with an anxiety disorder, phobia, or both, suggesting that a heritability is likely .
Research of the neurobiology of fear and specific phobias has found that some people may have a difference in the activation and function of the fear response in the amygdala, indicating that they could have an increased sensitivity to fear that may lead to the development of a phobia .
Someone who has previously experienced a condition, either in childhood or adulthood, that required repeated treatments, involved a lot of pain, or disrupted certain areas of their life may develop a fear of becoming seriously unwell again and having to go through these negative experiences again .
Studies have found that many people who avoid going to the doctor do so because they have had negative experiences of doctors in the past, such as encountering bias related to their age, gender, weight, or ethnicity, or feeling dismissed when sharing their symptoms . This can cause a lack of trust and lead to the development of severe fear and avoidance of doctors.
Someone may develop iatrophobia if they experience a fear of medical examinations, whether a physical examination or an in-depth discussion about their medical history. For example, someone may feel very uncomfortable about allowing a doctor to examine their breasts, rectum, or genitals, causing them to avoid seeking help for symptoms related to these areas .
Similarly, they might be afraid because of an experience of past physical or sexual abuse that contributes to a fear of being touched by others or be afraid of showing scars or marks on their body that might require them to divulge information to their doctor about a traumatic event . Thus, iatrophobia may occur alongside a diagnosis of PTSD, or as the only disorder related to this event.
Many people live with their fear and avoid the stimulus that causes it, thus contributing to many specific phobias going undiagnosed . This is especially true of iatrophobia, as many people with this phobia will continue to avoid their doctor due to their fear and thus never receive a diagnosis.
If you think you have iatrophobia it is important to seek a diagnosis to receive appropriate treatment and prevent worsening physical and mental health. If you don’t feel able to go to your regular doctor, this consultation could take place over the phone or with a mental health professional, which may reduce your feelings of anxiety.
To diagnose iatrophobia, you will be asked questions about your symptoms relating to diagnostic criteria for a specific phobia from the DSM-5, which includes :
Due to the nature of iatrophobia, the first step to treating the condition is the development of a trusting therapeutic relationship, in which the individual feels heard and supported. Without this, symptoms may not be effectively managed and may worsen .
The effectiveness of treatment for certain kinds of specific phobias has not yet been well researched, so different phobias can potentially require different treatment. Treatment for phobias typically involves systematic exposure and desensitization, to gradually decrease the fear associated with the stimulus .
It is important to always take your medication exactly as prescribed, as taking too much, intentionally skipping doses, or abruptly stopping a medication can cause serious adverse effects and can worsen your mental and physical health.
The prevalence of iatrophobia is not known, due to a lack of research and reporting of the condition. However, research suggests that between 1-10% of the population has a debilitating phobia. Studies also show that females are much more likely to be diagnosed with a specific phobia than males .
With appropriate diagnosis and treatment, iatrophobia can be effectively managed. However, left untreated, these symptoms may worsen, and avoidance of doctors will likely continue, which could result in symptoms of a serious condition going unnoticed, undiagnosed, and untreated, with potentially severe or fatal consequences .
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