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Afraid of Getting Screened? You’re Not Alone

Some people seek out unending troves of health information on the Internet. These people want to know everything about different ailments they may (or may not) have and scour websites like WebMD to learn as much as possible. On the other side of the coin, there are people who avoid this information at all costs and would rather not know if they have a health problem at all. This group may put off routine screenings and tests and hope what they don’t know won’t hurt them.

Psychologists use the term ‘health information avoidance’ to describe the second group’s behavior. Health information avoidance is defined as a ‘defensive’ reluctance to get screened for health conditions, which usually stems from a fear of finding something wrong. Despite knowing the consequences, people who experience health information avoidance would rather remain unaware and evade testing altogether. Doctors say the most commonly evaded tests include routine colonoscopies, mammograms and genetic testing for predisposition to certain cancers (like breast cancer).

Why Does This Happen?

Avoidant behavior stems from normal feelings of fear and anxiety. There are many reasons someone might feel anxious about getting medical tests done. For example, exams may feel invasive, embarrassing, uncomfortable and time-consuming, with the possible ‘reward’ being bad news.

But it’s not just the screening itself that deters people. In many cases, people are more afraid of the results. After a diagnosis, people have to face all the different ways this news will impact their life. Will they be able to work? If they can’t work, how will they get the time off and maintain an income? Who will take care of their loved ones? There are many financial and emotional costs that come with having a medical condition, and processing it all can be daunting, so some would prefer to remain ignorant to it altogether.

Psychologists say that avoiding health information is an impulse that protects the self in the present instead of the long term. People are usually aware that early detection is the key to surviving most illnesses and preserving quality of life in the long term. However, that awareness often isn’t enough to spur a change in behavior.

“Knowledge alone isn’t enough,” said Nathan Consedine, a research assistant professor at Long Island University. “We know a lot of things are good for us and we still don’t do them. But if you tap into certain psychological factors, you can spark real change.”

How to Combat a Fear of Testing

While most people may always feel a level of anxiety around medical testing, there are ways to make the process feel more approachable. Psychologists found that using contemplation exercises is particularly effective in changing people’s minds about screening. In this scenario, contemplation refers to a psychological technique that gets people to identify their anxieties or hesitancies and think them through before making a decision.

In their experiment, researchers asked 130 adults whether they wanted to learn about their risk for cardiovascular disease. Before recording their responses, half of the group was given a contemplation exercise in which they were asked to list three reasons why they should learn their results and three reasons why they shouldn’t, then rank the importance of each reason. The other group wasn’t asked to do this exercise. The results showed that 72 percent of the contemplation group decided to learn their risk, whereas only 45 percent of the control group chose the same. Taking the time to consider their reasoning helped people combat the more impulsive health avoidant behavior.

If you are feeling anxiety around medical testing, try some of these tips:

  1. Contemplation. Think about what is holding you back from getting screened. Try making a pros and cons list with the reasons why you should get screened and the reasons why you don’t want to.
  2. Talk to your doctor. Ask your doctor specific questions about how testing is done, when you can expect your results back and anything else that might be worrying you. Having answers to these questions can help put your mind at ease.
  3. Bring a buddy. If possible, bring a friend or loved one to your appointment and plan to do something fun with them afterwards. Doing this can provide a sense of emotional support, accountability and can reframe your appointment day as something more enjoyable.

People use plenty of rationalizations to justify putting off routine testing – being relatively young, being busy with other day-to-day responsibilities or simply not ‘feeling sick.’ But at the end of the day, getting medical tests done regularly (as suggested by your doctor) is one of the best ways to stay on top of your health. And the earlier an issue is discovered, the more options you have. A fleeting moment of discomfort now can save you greater discomfort in the future.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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