How many times have you gotten angry only to have someone ask if you’re on your period? Or maybe expressed concern in your doctor’s office about weight gain, only to be told it’s a “normal” part of hormones and womanhood?
Despite decades of advocacy, there’s still a belief in the medical community that women’s pain–and their health issues and concerns–are all in their head.
Women’s sexual and reproductive health has a long history of being dismissed by doctors, but today, more and more women are coming forward about a term that’s unfortunately becoming more and more mainstream: medical gaslighting.
Women Have Experienced Gaslighting for Centuries
“Female hysteria” was once a common medical diagnosis for women, used whenever women showed “inappropriate” emotions such as anger and even sexual desire. For centuries, it was believed that the uterus itself was the cause of a woman’s “hysterical” symptoms.
Given this history, it’s no wonder women’s medical concerns are dismissed and downplayed, even today.
Why is this an issue? Because women not being taken seriously in their doctor’s visits goes way beyond the emotional issue of not feeling listened to or supported.
Medical gaslighting harms patients in more ways than one.
Before we talk about how medical gaslighting makes getting care a problem for patients, let’s define what medical gaslighting actually is.
What is Medical Gaslighting?
“Gaslighting” is a term that can be applied to any situation where one person tries to convince another to doubt their perception of events or that something is real.
Medical gaslighting happens when healthcare professionals downplay or dismiss symptoms you know you’re feeling, and instead tell you they’re caused by something else—or that you’re imagining them.
They may wrongly determine that pain or other symptoms are not real or simply a result of stress or anxiety. When this happens, it may take years, if it happens at all, to receive a proper diagnosis.
The biggest issue is that medical gaslighting harms patients and makes them less likely to pursue proper care, especially with sensitive issues involving reproductive and sexual health.
Sexual and reproductive women’s health conditions are among the most common to experience gaslighting.
An estimated 1 in 10 women in their reproductive years have PCOS, and yet it can still take as long as two years with three different doctors to receive a diagnosis (1).
Endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and other sexual health issues share similar statistics–all the while, patients experience pain, a reduced quality of life, and put their overall health at risk.
These issues can already be tricky to diagnose, but a doctor dismissing your pain, or downplaying the root cause can only delay getting you the care you need.
Every day a woman spends searching for a diagnosis is precious time that could be spent healing, and finding the root cause of her illness.
We Don’t Trust Women to Be Experts in Their Bodies
One of the earliest messages a young woman hears is that “pain is a normal part of womanhood.”
Family members, friends, and even doctors are among the first to plant the seed that dealing with more pain is normal, and that speaking out about it isn’t acceptable.
Because of this message, there is a systemic issue where patients and doctors alike have difficulty telling the difference between what’s normal–and what’s abnormal–for women’s health.
Simply put, this means we don’t trust women to be experts about their own bodies’ experiences or symptoms.
What Gaslighting Looks Like in a Doctor’s Office
Gaslighting in general can be applied to any interaction from personal to professional relationships. In your doctors’ office, you can spot gaslighting when you feel:
Trivializing – Occurs when a person belittles or disregards the other person’s feelings. For example, if you complain about painful PMS that keeps you in bed for days, and someone says, “That’s just a normal part of womanhood.”
Stereotyping – Using stereotypes about gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, or age to manipulate a person. “Women who go through menopause are all a little crazy,” or “all Latinas have trouble with their periods.”
Countering – This involves questioning a person’s memories or lived experience. For example, “No, this type of birth control couldn’t cause those symptoms. It must be stress.”
Additionally, if a medical provider ever dismisses your symptoms, glosses over concerns, or only urges you to seek psychiatric care for your pain–it may be time to get a second opinion.
(While stress management and psychiatric care are important for many problems, it doesn’t negate the need for proper care in other areas as well.)
If you hear any of the above phrases, or feel that your intuition is sending you signals, explore other options for an alternate physician who may better suit your needs.
How Gaslighting Harms Women’s Health
As mentioned above, gaslighting in your doctor’s office isn’t just about hurt feelings, but doctors and patients alike are expressing concern that it does real, and significant harm to patients.
Delays diagnosis. If patients don’t feel listened to or supported, they may not seek care if they think their concerns will be dismissed. This delays diagnosis and can worsen health outcomes in the long term.
Serious health problems go unchecked. Gaslighting can result in healthcare providers missing important warning signs of more serious conditions. For example, diminishing the pain associated with endometriosis can result in complications that lead to infertility.
Less pain medicine. Women with heart disease are prescribed less medicine and offered surgery less often than men.
Delays care until an emergency occurs. In one study, women who went to the ER with severe stomach pain had to wait almost 33% longer than men with the same symptoms (2).
Many doctors and patients are speaking out about these concerns, and advocating for better care, more trusting relationships, and no more gaslighting.
But what causes gaslighting to happen in the first place? Is it just doctors who don’t care to listen to their patients, or is it something more?
Where Gaslighting Begins
Many holistic doctors like myself believe the whole medical system needs restructured. The issue with dismissing patients’ lived experiences and their concerns is one that is deeply embedded in the web of medical research, education, and practice.
Here’s a few reasons why women struggle with gaslighting with their medical providers.
- A lot of medical research is based upon men.
Women are not small men, but many studies treat men’s and women’s bodies the same. Because of this, when you complain about the side effects of a new medication your doctor recently put you on–he or she may say, “No, this medication doesn’t cause the side effects you’re describing,” because data specifically on women isn’t available.
In one survey, students in medical school recognize the need for gender-based teachings in women’s medicine, but the current curriculum falls short of providing adequate education on evidence-based health differences (3).
- Limited time with patients.
On average, patients spend about 12 minutes with their doctor. That’s a very short amount of time to address anything more than the most pressing concerns. In one survey, about 70% of women overlooked some of their questions in favor of more pressing matters (4).
Feeling rushed during a doctors’ appointment may make many women more likely to downplay their own symptoms, and not even mention them to their doctor.
- Women want to be “good” patients.
Men, for example, tend to be more vocal and persistent with their concerns. Women generally have a more difficult time pushing back, and they feel they need to be good patients–which means listening to and accepting what their doctor tells them.
But by doing this it can leave women vulnerable to unintentional (or intentional) gaslighting.
Conventional Medicine Struggles with Women’s Health
Women’s health problems are exactly the type of issues that Western medicine struggles with: they’re not well understood, can be difficult to diagnose, and they’re often best treated with a holistic (or whole-body) approach.
Unfortunately, Western conventional medicine has gotten stuck in the “pill-for-an-ill approach”. The goal is that we want to diagnose an illness, treat it with medication, and send the patient on their way.
In reality, many medical issues are more complex than this, and require a more holistic approach.
Eastern medicine teaches a more relational approach–pairing lifestyle, foods, mental wellbeing, and medicinal interventions to create health. Eastern medicine focuses more on how these factors relate to one another and to women’s wellness.
Think You’re Being Gaslighted? Here’s What to Do
Find a provider you bond with. You don’t have to want to be friends with your doctor, but finding someone who is honest, direct, and listens to you is important.
Prioritize your concerns. Help your doctor help you by bringing a list of your most important concerns. Discuss what’s most concerning to you in your appointment, and save other, more minor concerns for email or other communication.
Become your own advocate. You are truly a partner in your care. If you’re not happy with the first opinion you receive, seek a second opinion. In some cases, you may need to insist on seeing a specialist.
Don’t avoid male doctors. Although it might be tempting to assume female doctors will listen and be more attentive, that isn’t always the case. Find a doctor who takes your complaints seriously–no matter their gender.
Seek integrative care. In my practice, we gather so much information about medical history, symptoms, nutrition, and other lifestyle factors. And when women are treated by integrative teams, they are much less likely to have their complaints treated as emotionally driven, or ‘all in your head’.
Holistic Wellness Is Better for Women’s Health
Women’s health is complex and depends upon a great partnership between you and your doctor. The first step in advocating for better care is learning how to spot gaslighting in a medical setting, and taking all womens’ concerns seriously.
With more awareness, and women who continue to be vocal about better care, we can improve the health and wellbeing of women and make sure they receive the health care they deserve.
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