You’ve noticed symptoms for a few weeks, maybe months or even since childhood. You visited doctor after doctor with no answer. Over time, the symptoms progress and may start to interfere with daily living.
So you go to your doctor again, seeking some answers and solutions. But again, you don’t get a diagnosis or are misdiagnosed. Every year, over 12 million adults who seek medical care receive a misdiagnosis. Of these misdiagnoses, about 15% are patients with serious conditions and 28% are life threatening.
Unable to provide answers, the doctor tells you “it’s all in your head” or “these symptoms don’t add up, have you considered a psychologist?”
You leave feeling more confused, frustrated, even anxious and depressed. You may even start thinking it really is all in your head.
Medical gaslighting happens to millions of people every year.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that hangs on creating self-doubt and makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. Someone who experiences gaslighting often leaves a conversation or situation feeling confused, anxious and even a little ‘crazy’.
Because gaslighting involves an imbalance of power between the abuser and victim, it can happen in personal, professional, public figures and even doctor patient relationships.
Medical gaslighting happens when a health-care professional downplays or dismisses a patient’s symptoms, manipulating the patient into thinking that they are exaggerating their symptoms, caused by something else, or imaged all together.
How does medical gaslighting present itself?
Gaslighting can be difficult to recognize because at its core, gaslighting itself can be confusing because it’s meant to confuse you. What makes it more difficult to identify is that it often comes from someone who you are supposed to trust.
Some signs to look out for include:
- The Twilight Zone effect. Victims of gaslighting report feeling like the situation is surreal
- Being dismissed or belittled.
- Being told your exaggerating symptoms
- Minimizing symptoms or telling you your symptoms are “normal”
- Questioning the accuracy of what you are telling them
- Language describing you as being crazy, overreacting or too sensitive
- Assumes a diagnosis based on gender, identity, age, sexuality or ethnicity, without any medical testing
- Refuses further medical testing despite persistent symptoms
- Disregards previous test results, evaluations or information from other doctors
- Makes you doubt yourself and question your ability to think clearly
- Placing blame on you, the patient
What are the implications of medical gaslighting?
In essence, gaslighting is meant to create self-doubt and uncertainty which is harmful to a patients mental health. Because chronic illnesses, rare diseases, and more serious diseases like cancer may take longer to diagnose or require more in depth testing, gaslighting can even be fatal.
If you’ve been gaslit, you may experience increased anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, (acute) post-traumatic stress disorder, hypervigilance, social phobias and even suicidal ideation.
Additionally, symptoms that are not treated properly and don’t address the root cause of the illness, or are left untreated entirely, may lead to worsening and new symptoms. A recent study reported that diagnostic errors contribute to about 10% of patient deaths and account for 6 to 17% of adverse events in hospitals.
When you experience gaslighting, it breaks trust between you, the patient, and the health care professional. And you may be hesitant to see the (any) doctor again, despite your symptoms.
Instead of being a victim to gaslighting, learn to use your voice. A few ways you can use your voice include:
- Make a complaint. If you’ve experienced repeated offenses (or even just one) from a particular health care professional you have the right to file a complaint against them. This can be done by reporting them to their employer or even medical board.
- Tell as many people as possible. When you tell multiple people, they can back you up and validate your experience. Validation of your experiences, both of your symptoms and with the doctor, affirms that your experiences are indeed real. In addition to personal validation, the more you talk about it, the more awareness you raise about the issue within the patient community. Opening up about your experiences helps others identify if they are experiencing gaslighting and how to deal with it.
- Consult a therapist. While the illness may not be in your head, it’s safe to rule out any possible mental health issues too. Talking with a therapist can also help you manage the repercussions of being gaslit.
- Get a second, or third, opinion. Keep a journal of all your symptoms including frequency, severity, and length. Do they occur only during a certain time of day? Is there anything that makes them better or worse? The more information you can provide, the better. Additionally, come prepared to your appointment with a list of questions regarding your symptoms or potential diagnosis.
When talking about medical gaslighting, it’s important to keep in mind there are hundreds of thousands of diagnoses, many of which have similar symptoms, and there are various working conditions healthcare professionals face. Many are working long hours and under an immense amount of stress, both personally and professionally, and are doing the best they can to provide you with the right answers.
At the end of the day, doctors are humans just like you, and they can’t know everything. And you, the patient, needs to have patience and compassion on yourself as you go through the diagnosing process.
The most important aspect of the doctor patient relationship is one that’s built on trust. The patient needs to be open, honest and feel heard about their experiences, and in return, doctors need to genuinely listen to concerns and deliver the best care possible.
If you feel you’ve experienced medical gaslighting, know you are not alone. There are hundreds of others who have experienced it too, and there are hundreds of medical professionals who will provide you with the care you deserve.