Chronic Illness Health Maintenance

The stress of medical appointments and procedures.

Posted Oct 13, 2020

Katie Willard Virant
Source: Katie Willard Virant

Medical appointments and procedures: They’re part of life for most people living with chronic illness. We seek treatment when we’re flaring, but we also require a lot of preventative care in the form of bloodwork, radiology exams, appointments, and biopsies.

Sometimes our medications can only be given by infusion at the hospital. These medications also can cause potential side effects, such that we need eyes, skin, and other organs regularly checked. Many of us are at a doctor’s office or hospital several times a month. And this is just for maintenance—when things go wrong, we add in additional appointments and procedures, including hospitalizations and surgeries. This month’s post explores the stress of managing our maintenance appointments and provides strategies designed to mitigate that stress.

Why Am I So Stressed?

Logistics: We expend energy and time when we drive to the hospital/doctor’s office, manage the parking and check-in process, wait to be seen, and then have our appointment. It is not unusual for this process to run several hours. It’s often a struggle to carve these hours out of days filled with employment, caring for families, and other tasks of living.  

Uncertainty: What will the doctor find? What will the bloodwork reveal? We are being checked for a reason and—even if we get the all-clear signal most of the time—we worry that we will receive unwelcome news about our health.

Trauma: The memory of trauma resides in our bodies. Those of us who live with chronic illness have experienced pain, terror, and helplessness in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Is it any wonder that our bodies tighten and our thoughts race when we return to the scene of so much trauma?  

Reminder of illness identity: Our illness identity is front and center when we’re at the hospital or doctor’s office. Emotions associated with this can be painful: We may feel angry that we have more to cope with than healthy peers. We may feel shame that our health status makes us different.  

Coping and Thriving

I hope that laying out the various aspects of stress surrounding maintenance health care appointments is validating. There are understandable reasons for feeling stress! A major piece of stress associated with chronic illness is the feeling of helplessness. By developing and implementing coping skills, we can replace some of the helplessness with a more powerful feeling of agency. 

Check in with yourself: Notice how you carry the stress of appointments and procedures. Do you become irritable? Overwhelmed? Depressed? Does your head pound? Jaw clench? Stomach feel upset? Check in with yourself at all stages of the process, from scheduling the appointment, to driving to the hospital, to sitting in the waiting room, to the appointment/procedure itself. You’ll want to identify the ways you carry this stress so that you can target your strategies to reduce it. If your jaw clenches, be conscious of loosening it. If your stomach is upset, carry an antacid with you. If your thoughts race, breathe deeply to slow them down.

Practice mindfulness: It’s important to develop and practice the capacity to relax the body and mind. There are many books, apps, and websites dedicated to meditation and mindfulness practice. Explore them! Consistency is more important than duration. If you do one thing for yourself today, find a five-minute meditation you like and commit to practicing it daily. Practice will ensure that you'll have easy access to it when you need to calm yourself during your appointments/procedures. Your meditation can be as simple as slowing your breathing, repeating a mantra, and/or visualizing something that triggers relaxation.

Stay in the moment: As part of your mindfulness practice, you’ll develop techniques to help you to stay in the moment. You’ll become better able to disentangle your past experiences and future worries about your health from the present appointment. You’ll learn to face the appointment for what it is, and gently put down the baggage from painful past experiences and future events that may never happen.  

Anticipate your needs: Some basic practices that can help smooth the routine of maintenance checkups include bringing snacks and water. I always have peanut butter crackers and an iced tea waiting for me in the car after my appointment, as I’ve learned that I’m usually tired and hungry from the ordeal. Bring books, games, music, crafts, and anything else that helps you pass the time pleasurably. Inevitable waits will be less frustrating if you are doing something enjoyable.  

Acknowledge your feelings: An appointment or procedure has layers of meaning for people with chronic illness. The emotional weight of the appointment is understandable. Prepare yourself to feel a variety of feelings, including anxiety, shame, and anger. Acknowledge these feelings and validate them as they arise. Finally, give yourself permission to recover from feeling these emotions. You may wish to have a rest when you return home, or talk to a family member or friend about your feelings. It’s helpful even just to remind yourself that you’ve been through something difficult and deserve care.  

Communicate with loved ones: Our loved ones may not fully understand the stress of our maintenance doctor appointments and procedures. You can show them this article and tell them you’d like them to know how hard these appointments are for you. You can ask for extra help and support on the days you have these appointments.  

Seek professional help if needed: Sometimes feelings around appointments and procedures become too big to manage alone. If you find you’re not able to calm yourself, or that you’re avoiding appointments because they feel too daunting, a mental health professional can help. For clients whose fears are debilitating, mental health professionals can teach relaxation techniques and help process difficult emotions. Some professionals offer medical hypnosis, which can offer a deep way to relax.

What are your coping tools for managing appointments and procedures associated with your chronic illness? Please share in the comments section below.