Nosocomephobia: Fear of Hospitals, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Of all the common phobias, perhaps the most irrational is the phobia of hospitals and doctors. After all, whereas a plane really could crash or a spider really could bite you, hospitals exist solely to make you better. And yet so intense is this fear that it can prevent people seeking help, advice, and even treatment.

The Nature of the Problem

The fear of hospitals and doctors is so widespread that each has its official title: the phobia of doctors is known as “Latrophobia,” while the fear of hospitals is known by the even more elaborate “Nosocomephobia.” The majority of people approach the medical world with a degree of fear and suspicion; after all, you visit a doctor or spend time in a hospital because you are ill, not to have fun. But that is not the same as a phobia. Someone who fears going to see their doctor to hear their test results, or who fears going into hospital for cancer treatment, does not have a phobia. Their fear is perfectly understandable. A phobia, remember, is irrational, abnormal, and excessive. In other words, the fear is out of proportion.

To fear hospitals and doctors is perfectly normal. Indeed, those who have no fear whatsoever are the exception. But most people can usually summon up enough courage to face what must be faced. The phobic cannot. If you do have a phobia, by the way, take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Richard Nixon, for example, suffered Nosocomephobia. In 1974 he even refused to go into hospital to have a blood clot treated.

Unfortunately, the body is a fragile and complicated object that constantly breaks down and needs to be repaired. Whereas you can easily get through life avoiding spiders, clowns, plane journeys, or whatever your phobia may be, this is one phobia you are going to have to confront sooner or later.

The Causes

Since knowledge really is power, the more you understand about your phobia, the more effectively you will be able to treat it. Begin with the origins. People with a full-blown phobia can usually trace it to some specific incident, memory, or idea. So begin by thinking back over your past experiences. If you cannot recall anything specific, ask your parents whether they remember some frightening or distressing moment in your childhood that may have lodged itself in your unconscious.

Perhaps the most common cause of this phobia is the horrible things we associate with a hospital. For many people, a hospital isn’t a place you visit in order to be healed but a place where you suffer and die. Doctors and nurses often forget that the rest of us have not been de-sensitized to the sights, sounds and smells of such places. Indeed, the smell alone (often an odd mixture of sweat, disinfectant, orange juice, and stale flowers) is enough to nauseate. Part of the problem is that medicine is not very effective. Obviously, it has made great strides, but cancer treatment, for example, is still often gruelling and distressing, while we have no cure for things like heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Motor Neurone Disease, and so on.

This fear of hospitals also has its roots in our collective memory. In an essay titled How the Poor Die, published in the 1930’s, George Orwell writes “During the past 50 years or so there has been a great change in the relationship between doctor and patient. If you look at almost any literature before the latter part of the nineteenth century, you find that a hospital is popularly regarded as much the same thing as a prison…a place of filth, torture, and death…No one who was not more or less destitute would have thought of going into such a place for treatment.” And this way of thinking has not entirely died out but lingers on in the collective unconscious.

Finally, there is the fear of losing control. When you go into hospital, or allow yourself to be examined by a doctor, you put yourself into the hands of a stranger. For some people this is unbearable. It is especially unpleasant for those abused or ill-treated in early life. Children are at the mercy of adults. They are helpless and dependent. If those adults abuse them, sexually or violently, they will carry a lifelong fear of being in the hands of other people – of losing the ability to control and defend their body. When you put on the hospital gown and climb into bed, you are symbolically renouncing such power and control and placing yourself in the hands of the medical staff.

Treating Your Fear

As with any phobia, the greatest weapon is cool, calm reason. Hospitals, doctors, and nurses exist to heal. They are there to make you better, not to hurt or torment you. This seems obvious, but many phobics behave as if the thing they fear had been brought into the world to harm them personally: a plane does not exist to fall into the sea, a spider does not exist in order to bite you, and the hospital was not built in order to end your life!

This terror of hospitals, though irrational, is understandable. As Orwell himself points out in his essay, medicine was largely useless until the middle of the 19th century (one early 19th century American doctor famously remarked that if all the world’s medicine were thrown into the sea, only the fish would suffer). Indeed, even today the list of things we cannot cure is long. And the general public know this. Not only does a cancer cure still elude us, in spite of the billions spent on research we can’t even rid people of trivial miseries like hay fever and colds. But that looks set to change. It has been said that while the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st will be the century of biology. To put it bluntly, we are at last emerging from the medical dark ages.

A little research into the latest, cutting-edge treatments can be thrilling and inspiring. Remember, medicine is always advancing. Every year we get slightly better. Knowledge accumulates, and new technologies constantly appear. To take one example, medical nanotechnology could lead to more effective forms of treatment through microscopic machines literally injected into the bloodstream. So, for example, instead of open heart surgery, nanoparticles coated with sticky proteins will carry drugs to damaged arteries, repairing the elastic walls from within. Phobics need to update. If you find yourself in hospital five or 10 years from now, the treatments you receive will be both more effective and less distressing than those administered to your mother or grandmother.

Knowledge means power, but it can also mean peace of mind. This is especially true for those who hate the loss of control. Once you understand exactly what prostate cancer is, how the drugs and surgeons work, and what their goals are, you will feel better – and more in control. And you will lose that sense of being at the mercy of malevolent powers. Cancer isn’t some dark demon out to get you but a perfectly comprehensible physical illness.

It is also important to see medical staff as human beings rather than robots in white coats. Make a point of getting to know your doctor. Obviously they are busy people and often cannot spare much time, but whenever you can, find out about their lives. Do they have children, for example? And do their children intend to become doctors as well? Where did they go to college? More importantly, discover their passion – what interests them outside of their career in medicine? Maybe they enjoy baseball or write poetry. Some of the more sensitive and thoughtful doctors have photographs in their consulting room showing themselves hiking up a mountain or fishing by a lake. This is often deliberate and is done to reassure their patients that, yes, I am human.

If you find yourself in a bed on a ward, on the other hand, chat to the nurses. Ask them about their family life, vacations, and hobbies. Such knowledge will humanize them. Instead of being lost in the medical machine, you will see that you are in the hands of professionals, many of whom deeply care for those they treat and have entered this world from a sincere desire to do good.

Finally, you can take back control by helping to speed your recovery along. Do your research and learn all you can about diet, exercise, and supplements. There are several excellent books available. For example, Hazel Courteney, a former health journalist for the London Times newspaper, has published 500 of the Most Important Health Tips You’ll ever Need, in which she lists all the most common illnesses and diseases in alphabetical order, offering detailed advice on how to treat each one by cutting out certain foods, introducing others, and making use of herbs and supplements. It would also be helpful to join an online support forum. Here you will find others who’ve been diagnosed with the same illness, or are in the process of recovering. They can guide and advise you, suggesting the forms of treatment to avoid and those to try.

The 21st century is likely to see a new kind of relationship developing between doctor and patient – something collaborative rather than passive. Some doctors and surgeons complain that the Internet is the bane of their life. Patients now have access to almost limitless information and are consequently far more argumentative and skeptical, and less respectful of the doctor’s opinion. Others welcome it, however, pointing out that patients are now better informed and so more likely to seek treatment early and to find effective ways of speeding their recovery along.

Above all, keep in mind that doctors and hospitals are there to help you. And be kind to yourself: irrational though your phobia may be, it is both understandable and common.

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