It’s no secret that chronic illness is accompanied by lots of medical trauma. Memories from emergency surgery, near-death experiences, or being gaslit by medical practitioners can have lasting effects on patients and their willingness to receive care. Medical gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where medical practitioners deny, dismiss, or blame patients' for their health concerns. It seems everyone in the chronic illness community seems to have a story about medical gaslighting so let’s talk about how to identify and fight against it as patients.
Let’s start optimistically. Medical gaslighting, although common, is not okay under any circumstance. For real change to occur, providers must recognize their behavior and choose to be better. But while we wait for providers to end the gaslighting, we as patients must find ways to work within the system and fight for the care we deserve. Let’s also acknowledge that good doctors exist and providers most often do not have malicious intentions when treating patients. The system as a whole is incredibly broken and medical providers, just like patients are trying their best (most of the time). Chronic illness is complicated and affects the mind and the body. There is so much that still remains a mystery.
Identifying medical gaslighting can be tricky. Medical providers are often revered as superior in knowledge and authority when in reality they are people who are just like you and me. With that in mind, let’s go over some of the warning signs of medical gaslighting.
Red Flag 1: Something isn’t sitting right with you
Gut feelings exist for a reason and thanks to some kick-ass evolutionary purposes. Your intuition is smarter than you may think and if something seems off there is a good chance that you are right. Trust your gut. More importantly, find a doctor that makes you feel comfortable and safe. If you are a female that struggles with male authority figures try to find a female doctor. If it’s not possible to find a doctor that you feel comfortable with build up your confidence by learning as much as possible. Try to identify what is not sitting well with you and speak up. It’s okay to question doctors.
Red Flag 2: Dismissing your concerns using phrases like “you are too young” or “that’s normal”
Many times people, especially older generations, forget that chronic illness doesn’t give a shit how old you are. It’s not like you turn 65 and the chronic illness fairy comes along and gifts you all the health issues she’s been saving for you to handle in old age. If your doctor thinks that chronic illness doesn’t happen to young people throw some facts their way and say “adios”. If a doctor tells you that your symptom is ‘normal’ when a symptom has never been normal for you, they are incorrect. Again, trust your gut even though it's incredibly hard. Many times, doctors write off things like pain during sex or menstrual cramps as normal using gender stereotypes to make biased conclusions. Other stereotypes that may be weaponized include weight, race, sexual orientation, income, and education. Stay alert and informed. Stand up for yourself. Keep fighting even though you shouldn’t have to. Don’t stop until you find a provider that will make you feel understood.
Red Flag 3: Blaming you using phrases like “It’s all in your head” or “You need to lose weight” or “You are lazy”
Your medical provider should be ON YOUR TEAM. Yes, mental health and physical health have some overlap, weight can sometimes play into issues, and being physically exhausted can make compliance difficult. Anxiety, stress, and trauma can cause some wacky things to happen in our bodies. But you know your body better than anyone, if you think there is something more to your shortness of breath, rashing, or headaches it’s important to find providers that will explore that with you. Personally, it took me 7 years to receive a diagnosis because doctor after doctor dismissed my symptoms or blamed them on something like anxiety. You are not crazy, you are not stupid, and you are not alone.
My best advice is to keep fighting and learn as much as possible. If you are struggling use the buddy system. If reading and understanding medical information is difficult for you find a friend, coworker, or patient advocate that will help you break things down. If you struggle being assertive and standing up for yourself prepare for doctor's appointments, bring notes, practice in the mirror what you are going to say, and bring moral support. The bottom line is you have to fight, no one else is going to do it for you. It sucks and it should be different and maybe someday it will be, but for now, you have to keep pushing. It’s your life and it’s important. If you need help feel free to reach out to Co-Immunity, join a support group, or follow for more tips. You’ve got this!