Health & Wellness

What is Medical Gaslighting? The Signs, Responses, & Consequences

You’ve probably heard the term gaslighting, a form of manipulation that makes you question your own judgement or even your own reality. But have you ever heard of—or even worse, experienced—medical gaslighting?

Unfortunately, it happens far more frequently than many of us realize. And it’s a very real problem in the medical community.

Today, I want to lift the veil on this very real, very prevalent issue and discuss the signs of medical gaslighting, who’s most at risk of experiencing it, top signs and examples, and—most importantly—what you should do if it happens to you!

 

What is Medical Gaslighting?

Some doctors may make you feel like your physical symptoms are in your head (due to stress, lack of sleep, etc.)—a denial known as medical gaslighting.

In fact, medical gaslighting is one of the most common experiences reported to me in my health consultation offerings.

Fortunately, some patients are starting to recognize the signs and are seeking more supportive practitioners when their guts tell them to keep digging and not ignore their body’s signals that something just isn’t right.

I get it, because I’ve been there myself—a few times.

As a child, I often complained of stomachaches. They were so severe, I hated to eat. Instead of my doctors listening to me and taking my claims seriously, they assumed I had anxiety and possibly an eating disorder.

Eventually, we discovered that I was allergic to dairy, which caused extreme and chronic constipation. If the doctor had only listened, I could’ve found relief years earlier. That, my friends, is medical gaslighting.

Another example took place in my early 30s. My husband and I were ready to start a family, and I wanted to make sure I was healthy and my body was prepared to carry and nourish a baby. So, I went to see my doctor to ask for a full workup.

Instead, I was brushed off and simply told, “You are young; you are healthy.” No bloodwork was ordered. I was sent on my way, left feeling unsure of whether or not we would be successful in conceiving a child.

Fortunately, it worked out and I now have two healthy, thriving sons. But once again, I experienced medical gaslighting. Instead of following my lead and honoring my wishes, my doctor brushed me off and left me feeling like my request was ridiculous given my age.

You’re supposed to be able to trust your doctor. But how can you trust someone who doesn’t listen to your fears or concerns? How can you trust someone who practices medical gaslighting?

The simple answer? You can’t.

5 Signs and Examples of Medical Gaslighting

So, how do you know if you’ve been a victim of medical gaslighting?

If your doctor has ever made any of these comments to you, I’m sorry to say that you’ve experienced medical gaslighting, my friend. This is what it looks like:

  1. “It’s just in your head.”
  2. “There’s no such thing as _______.”
  3. “You’re just stressed.”
  4. “I’m the expert.”
  5. “Stop searching the web for answers.”

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it gives you a solid idea of what medical gaslighting can sound like.

And even if your doctor doesn’t make these statements to you, if you leave your appointment feeling brushed off or you’re made to feel “crazy,” there’s a high likelihood you’ve just experienced medical gaslighting.

And there are still strong biases in medicine—both gender- and race-based, which means that certain elements of who you are can increase your likelihood of experiencing medical gaslighting.

In fact, one study revealed that women who went to the ER complaining of severe stomach pain were made to wait about 33 percent longer than men who presented with the very same symptoms! [1]

I don’t know about you, but as a physician and a woman, I find this appalling and completely unacceptable. So, what are we do to? Keep reading to get my insight on how to respond if you’re in a situation similar to the examples above.

 

Medical gaslighting - Dr. Pingel

 

How to Respond to Medical Gaslighting

Here’s the major problem with medical gaslighting: It can have disastrous consequences, possibly even resulting in a life-or-death matter in certain situations!

The truth of the matter is that medical gaslighting shouldn’t even exist. As we’ve discussed before, your doctor’s most important role is as a teacher.

Your doctor’s job isn’t to be “smarter” than somebody else or to be a “know-it-all.”

Instead his or her job is to listen, educate, motivate, and help guide you to proper health decisions based on a deep understanding of how your body works.

And, finally, your doctor’s job is to look out for your best interest while making sure you understand the “why” behind what’s happening. This requires a solid doctor-patient relationship built on mutual respect and trust.

After all, studies have shown that when doctors focus on calming patients’ feelings of anxiety and vulnerability and display understanding, patients are more likely to attend future appointments adhere to treatment plans. [2]

So, if your doctor doesn’t provide this level of support for you, it’s time to find one who does. Finding the right fit for you is absolutely critical for your overall health and well-being.

Get a second opinion, but only after you’ve interviewed the doctor to ask about his or her style, methods, philosophies on doctor-patient relationships, and more.

You can also ask friends and family for referrals, if you need the second opinion quickly. And if time is of the essence, you can book a virtual consultation here to discuss your situation with me and get guidance on how to proceed with a provider who is right for you and your unique needs.

Don’t settle for less than you deserve. And you deserve a physician who will listen to your concerns or situation, take you seriously, and help guide you to the best solution for you.

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