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Medical Gaslighting Is Real, and It May Have Happened to You

Real Talk

December 02, 2021

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Getty Images

Getty Images

by Nia G.

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Maria Gifford

Fact Checked

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•••••

by Nia G.

•••••

Maria Gifford

Fact Checked

•••••

•••••

A patient’s word should be believed. You shouldn’t need to fight to advocate for your health when you’re feeling your worst.

It’s a Tuesday. I’m exhausted, and it’s only 3 p.m. I’m at the doctor’s office, because my physical symptoms have been worsening.

After explaining how I am feeling and how much it’s affecting my life, the doctor looks me straight in the eye, and tells me that it’s because I’m not trying hard enough. The doctor goes on to say I must not be exercising enough or properly de-stressing.

The doctor tells me that I should stop coming to visit “whenever I feel like it.”

I’m speechless. I have no idea what to say. I feel embarrassed and ashamed. The doctor’s implication that I want to be sick, that I’m choosing illness, is so shocking and heart-breaking.

What’s even worse was that, after that day, I found myself starting to believe my doctors. Maybe I wasn’t actually feeling that bad?

I didn’t realize, at the time, that this was an example of medical gaslighting. It was something I had faced before receiving an ulcerative colitis diagnosis, and it’s something I continue to face.

What is medical gaslighting?

Medical gaslighting is a term derived from the term gaslighting, which means to make someone question their reality and what they know to be true.

Medical gaslighting operates in a similar sense. Usually it occurs when a medical professional leads a patient to believe that their own bodily experiences are somehow invalid or inaccurate.

This can take the form of telling a patient that their symptoms are “all in their head”, or “not that bad”, or even that the symptoms are the patient’s “own fault”.

Now that’s not to say that there are never any valid instances when a medical professional may determine that a patient’s symptoms aren’t anything to worry about.

Sometimes you may go to a medical professional for a consultation about a passing symptom or health-related concern you have. In these instances, it can even feel reassuring to hear from a medical professional that your symptoms aren’t concerning.

However, there are other instances when patients may visit a doctor’s office again and again, repeatedly detailing how unwell they feel, how severely their symptoms are disrupting their lives, and how much pain they’re in, only to be told that their symptoms are all in their heads.

Being told there’s nothing to worry about when you’re experiencing debilitating or persistent symptoms can be traumatic.

Medical gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, and it can also be physically dangerous if it leads to misdiagnosis or mistreatment.

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Have you faced medical gaslighting?

It can be hard to recognize that you’ve been medically gaslighted, because it often appears in subtle ways.

Medical gaslighting may include a medical professional:

  • not believing your symptoms
  • not taking your concerns seriously (especially when symptoms have gone on for a while)
  • downplaying the impact of your symptoms
  • denying further tests or investigations
  • assuming a diagnosis without those tests
  • assuming a diagnosis based on gender, weight, race, or ethnicity
  • assuming a diagnosis based on mental health
  • implying that you haven’t been trying hard enough to get better
  • recommending treatments that you stated do not work or made you feel worse
  • making you feel ashamed or embarrassed about coming in for an appointment

If you’ve experienced medical gaslighting, you’re not alone

Medical gaslighting is common, but research on its impact is still lacking. Sharing firsthand accounts about experiences with medical gaslighting is a good place to start. Spreading awareness and information can help make sure others know that they’re not alone.

In the process of writing this article, I asked followers of my Instagram account if they had personal experiences with medical gaslighting.

In just 24 hours, I received 147 responses.

So many of the respondents’ stories described years of unnecessary pain and suffering due to not having their experiences heard or believed. These are just a few of the messages I received:

“I had bladder issues for nearly 5 years. I was told it was in my head and that I just needed to strengthen my pelvic floor. I found a new doctor and learned I have a neurogenic bladder and cauda equina syndrome. My pain is not in my head, and now it is not fixable because too much time has passed.”

“When I had appendicitis, a doctor was convinced that I was overreacting and diagnosed me with constipation (after his initial thought of me being pregnant was proven wrong). I almost didn’t make it.”

“I have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). When I asked my doctor if there was anything we could do treatment-wise, she said, ‘I can go ahead and play this game with you, but I’m not going to do that. You just need to go and live your life. You’re too young to be sick.'”

“After multiple episodes of anaphylaxis, I went to see an allergist. He didn’t run any allergy tests, but instead he said it’s all from anxiety. I’m now diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS).”

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What to do if you think you’re being medically gaslighted

  • Do your research. Then, make a list of the symptoms you’re experiencing and potential causes for them. By doing this, you’ll be better prepared to know which tests to ask for. You can also bring research from relevant sources and academic journals.
  • Ask questions. If a medical professional refuses to send you for further testing, investigations, or treatment, it’s always within your right to respectfully ask why. You can ask for a justification or explanation behind their decision. If they continue to refuse despite you expressing your concerns, ask that they note their refusal in your medical record.
  • Bring a family member or friend. It can help to have another person you trust with you to act as a witness to the conversation. Unfortunately, medical professionals might not always accurately record your conversation. In many places and settings, you’re entitled to a witness or advocate.
  • Remember that your voice is important. Try not to let a medical professional speak over or interrupt your comments. If they do, you can politely ask them to finish speaking, or you can wait for them to finish and state that you would like to speak for the next few minutes without interruption.
  • Acknowledge how disruptive your symptoms are. If a medical professional implies that your symptoms are “normal,” you can explain how the impact the symptoms are having on your daily life is far from normal.
  • Bring a record about past treatment. If a medical professional suggests a treatment that hasn’t worked for you in the past, try to explain why it didn’t help you and why putting you on this treatment again could be detrimental to your health.
  • Remember that mental and physical health conditions may coexist. If a medical professional tried to tell you your symptoms are caused solely by stress or a mental health condition, explain that mental and physical health conditions can exist at the same time. Using mental health as justification for not taking a patient’s symptoms seriously is harmful and can lead to a doctor missing important information.
  • Find a new doctor. If you believe you’re being gaslighted by a medical professional, you can also seek a second opinion from a specialist or find a new doctor. There are many experts who can help you figure out a treatment plan that makes you feel supported and validated. The best doctor for you might not be the first one you meet with.

Older research from 2003 suggested that medical gaslighting may originate from stigma around certain communities and illnesses in general, such as “young people don’t get sick” or “women are more sensitive to pain.”

Populations that have historically been marginalized and mistreated in medical settings may also face a greater risk of experiencing gaslighting in medical settings. This includes women, LGBTQIA individuals, BIPOC individuals, and people who live with a chronic illness, or a mental or physical disability.

Many people working in medicine don’t realize that their actions are upholding such stigmas. For this reason, more training is needed for medical professionals to learn about medical gaslighting and bias.

The takeaway

It’s important that patients know about medical gaslighting, so they are able to recognize what has happened or is happening to them.

It’s also important to spread awareness, so those who have experienced medical gaslighting don’t feel ashamed or isolated — and so they know that receiving this kind of treatment is not acceptable.

Nobody should feel the way I felt that Tuesday afternoon. A patient’s word should be believed. You shouldn’t need to fight to advocate for your health when you’re feeling your worst.

If you’ve experienced medical gaslighting, know this: Medical gaslighting is real, and it’s not your fault.

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About the author

Nia G.

Nia is a chronic illness and disability advocate from the United Kingdom. Living with many conditions herself, Nia founded The Chronic Notebook platform on Instagram in 2019, now with 18K followers and growing. Since then, she has used The Chronic Notebook across online channels to spread awareness and educate others on issues around chronic illness and disability. In 2020, Nia won the ASUS Enter Your Voice Competition, receiving a grant to fund projects related to her work. Nia continues to work with charities and companies with illness and disability as their core focus.

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