Panic Life

Fighting Stigma and Living with an Anxiety Disorder

Doctors: Sometimes it's Anxiety and Sometimes it's Not

Doctors: it is not always anxiety.

A while back, I went to a neurologist with a legitimate medical concern. I was experiencing chronic numbness, tingling and burning in the back of my head and neck. It was extremely scary. The clinician who suggested I see the neurologist speculated that I could have Lupus or Lyme Disease. As someone living with panic disorder, hearing that I might have these conditions set off anxiety within my mind and my body in a big way.

Upon the mention of these diseases I felt my heart begin to race and my chest felt heavy with fear. I thought, I might be dying. I told the neurologist my symptoms to which she said: "This is probably just anxiety. But we'll humor you by going through a battery of tests to rule out anything major." This response floored me. She was dismissing my real medical concerns without even knowing the full story. She was discriminating against me on the basis of my pre-existing medical condition.

There was a period of time when I was waiting for test results. During that time, I was still in a great deal of physical pain. I was having chronic insomnia because of muscle spasms and nerve pain. I called the neurologist to inform her of my symptoms.

Her response: "Sarah, I know that you're in pain, but this is just anxiety. Please, you have to try to remain calm."

Whether or not these symptoms were the result of anxiety (which in the end they were not) a medical professional's obligation is to honor the symptoms of their patient. Saying that it was "just" anxiety minimizes the patient's feelings.

My best friend visited a doctor because she was experiencing shortness of breath. She was misdiagnosed as suffering from panic attacks multiple times before a doctor caught what she was actually dealing with: asthma. Doctors have a critical job. They have to evaluate patient's complaints and then make an informed diagnosis. It is unacceptable for a medical professional to minimize a patient's symptoms as exaggerated or erroneous because the person in question also manages anxiety.

Patients dealing with anxiety should be treated with the same level of respect as any other person entering a doctor's office for a visit. Judging a person because of their mental health issue is wrong. Sadly, this occurs in the offices of M.D.s all the time.

What you can do if you feel your legitimate health concerns are being dismissed:

1. Advocate for yourself: Tell your doctor that you are experiencing real symptoms that need evaluation. These symptoms are effecting your quality of life.

2. Don't Give Up If the doctor tells you that it's "just anxiety" and you feel that it's not, don't give up until you are being appropriately treated for the problem.

3. If All Else Fails Get a Second Opinion If your doctor refuses to believe you, it is within your right as a patient to consult another healthcare professional for a second opinion. As a person managing anxiety, you are entitled to the same patient rights as any other human being. Here's to staying healthy.

Sarah Fader is a mental illness advocate and mother of two living with
panic disorder in New York City.

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