White Coat Syndrome

  As a therapist that works with trauma, as well as eating disorders, I see so much pain. I've talked about trauma some before, and the way you define trauma is how your body responds and stores the experience. The topic of medical trauma showed up in a few sessions this week, and I thought I would talk some about this. Now, let me clarify….there is medical trauma that is the physical effects of medical treatments and testing. While I do not want anyone to minimize or discount their experiences with this, I want to highlight the process of doctors showing concern for your symptoms, testing for serious diseases or health complications, and the actual words that come out of the medical professional (diagnosis or not). One quick note, this is not a post about how medical professionals often add to body image issues and eating disorders….that is another post for another time. About 10 years ago, I went for a routine check-up. In taking my family medical history, the doctor learned that my mother had breast cancer at a young age (age 53) and I had not yet had a mammogram. She recommended getting a mammogram for a baseline, and I complied. That was the beginning of a journey. They would see something that concerned them and I would have multiple tests over the next few months. I would have a biopsy, an MRI, and several mammograms. Many doctor appointments, a few trial medications, several more mammograms. I would have surgery where they would remove this bit that concerned them. They would send that off to be analyzed by a pathologist, and I would learn it was "nothing." They would tell me I could wait an entire year before having another mammogram….and I would wait three! I do not recommend this, but I was so scared by the entire process. I did get a mammogram three years after that one, but not before going to some therapy to process that experience. I experienced a great deal of anxiety walking in to get that mammogram. A few weeks later when I got a letter saying it looked good, there were no concerns, I wanted to frame it. However, TO THIS DAY, when I go to the doctor, I experience anxiety and fear….any doctor of any kind. I've seen the term "white coat syndrome" on my paperwork because I often have some elevated blood pressure at these appointments, and I explain that my anxiety is up. They often take it a time or two before I leave and ask me to monitor it at home, where it is fairly normal. I write about this as what I want to label as "mild." It WAS intense and scary. The tests were mostly non-invasive and not painful…the surgery was the worst part and it was routine and minor. In the end, it was "nothing." Some tests are more invasive and/or painful. Then there are times when the diagnosis is something, regardless of how life threatening it is. And, of course, there might be the diagnosis of something that could be life-threatening. Simply going to the doctor can be a vulnerable process. Honor your experience as it is. Give yourself grace. Breathe. If you have a support person to accompany you to the doctor, especially following a stressful experience, I think that is such a good idea. Our brains may not be fully "online," if we are in a state of fear or anxiety, and our support person can help us remember what happened and what was said. And if you happen to be a medical professional reading this, please remember that while you may be coming from a very scientific viewpoint, we are coming from the viewpoint of feeling exposes and helpless, with emotions….we hear your words as having more authority…..and we need some support and guidance. There are some amazing medical professionals out there! Thank you for what you do!