There are plenty of people for whom searching for a doctor’s phone number, and then dialing it and making an appointment, is not an agonizing process. People who schedule appointments for themselves with ease are probably the same folks who buy toilet paper before their last roll is finished — they’re never left using tissues, or worse, paper towels. I am not one of one of those people. I have this floppy ankle, for example. It dangles inward when I lay my legs out in front me, and aches after a day of light activity. Physical therapy crossed my mind as a viable solution, of course, but I never pursued it. When I finally did go, years after the problem first started, the physical therapist told me I was missing a ligament. It snapped like a rubber band, she said, and I laughed and shook my head. If I had been a little less lazy, a tad more concerned for my physical well-being, would my ligament still be intact? Perhaps. But why did it take me so long to make an appointment? I had known something was wrong, but dealing with the problem felt like too great an inconvenience — like just another stressful task to add to my plate. Does this sound familiar?
My reluctance to go to physical therapy describes a phenomenon known as appointment anxiety. There’s an appointment you need to schedule but don’t, because of whatever reason you decide to come up with that day. One time I was “too busy” to make the call. Another time, my ankle “wasn’t that bad.” Not all situations that spur appointment anxiety are related to medical appointments, either. The apprehension and stress can stem from something like getting that haircut you’ve been putting off, or finally setting up that coffee with your friend’s friend who recently moved to your city. Sometimes, it’s just a manifestation of the fact that you have plenty of stress going on in other parts of your life, like work, and so handling just one more task, even if it’s a helpful one, feels like something you’d rather just put off.
Mollie Fein, 27, a data strategist living in Cleveland, Ohio, says red tape and “administrative bullsh*t” often trigger her appointment anxiety. “It puts me in a place where getting the procedure and dealing with the craziness causes more pain than just not getting the procedure at all,” she says. Fein gets regular botox for a medical condition. But after receiving a $3,000 bill for a procedure she was led to believe was covered by insurance and having to deal with the ensuing debate, she’s frustrated. Knowing that the effort to make an appointment for the procedure may just result in another high medical bill has led her, of course, to feel anxious about it.
Similarly, Emanuela Gentile, 37, of Fullerton Calif., was reluctant to see a new doctor because of an “emotionally tiresome” experience with a previous one. In that first appointment, she had felt dismissed and defeated, and she was sure the next doctor would trigger the same feelings. For both Fein and Gentile, appointment anxiety stems from past bad experiences. Steve Tuber, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at City College in New York City, says that’s completely natural. “Any sort of doubt about the outcome of the appointment is going to make us typically want to avoid or deny doing it,” he says.
That’s also known as signal anxiety, Tuber explains, and it’s one of the ways our brain warns us of potentially irksome or stressful situations. It’s the same reason why people who are bitten by dogs when they’re young may be fearful of dogs for years to come. In fact, signal anxiety can perpetuate appointment anxiety. But being able to acknowledge where your fear stems from — like how both Fein and Gentile are able to acknowledge their past experiences — is one of the most effective ways to overcome it, Tuber says.
Still, not all appointment anxiety obviously feels like fear, or is easily traced to an isolated experience. Gentile, for example, isn’t only hesitant about making an appointment with her doctor’s office. She also avoids the hairdresser, where she sometimes feels vulnerable, and dislikes the small talk. Tuber notes that vulnerability is another feeling that can stir appointment anxiety. “Most of the time what makes us vulnerable makes us want to avoid having to face it for as long as possible,” he says. Of course, ordinary day-to-day stress can cause appointment anxiety, too.
If you struggle with appointment anxiety, Tuber says that setting a reminder on your phone, or blocking time off in your work calendar to make the call, can be a helpful tool if you’re aware of why you’re hesitant to make the appointment in the first place. But if you’re truly frightened, or deeply stressed, “You can set reminders all day long and you’ll just keep pressing ‘remind me later,’” he says. Having an accountability buddy can be helpful because the people who love us are often able to see our avoidance for what it is, and push us to do the right thing.
There’s something to be said for just starting the process, too, B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., a family psychologist who co-authored The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, tells Thrive. “Get started by taking 10 minutes to begin the endeavor. Once you’ve started, the progress will likely help you continue until you’re finished.”
Alicia Clark, Psy.D., author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love, and All That You Do agrees with the “just do it” approach, and has a hack for getting it done. Break the scheduling down into tiny pieces. One day, find the phone number you need, then on the next day, you can look at your calendar to find the right time to make the call. And if you find that any one step is too anxiety-provoking, “Then the step is too big,” Clark says. Go smaller!
Once you’ve broken down the task as much as you can, scheduling will be easier. Clark notes that you may experience discomfort when making the call, but you should take comfort in knowing that it will only last a couple of minutes or less.
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