What Is Medical Gaslighting? Here’s How To Tell If Your Doctor Is Doing It To You

by | May 17, 2023 | Physical Health

Gaslighting by medical professionals can have dangerous health consequences. Learn how to spot signs of medical gaslighting and take control.

What Does Medical Gaslighting Look Like?

Mallory San Nicolas was 29 and pregnant with her second son when she started having double vision. Her doctor blamed pregnancy-related hormone changes, saying she’d see clearer postpartum. With her delivery – a second cesarean section – came a new symptom: weakness in her legs that was so profound, she had to manually lift them to get into a car. And the double vision remained. Two months later, there was no improvement on either front.

Her doctor said the weakness was probably related to a hernia, she recalls, and suggested core exercises to help her regain the strength to lift her legs. As for her sight? Well, nursing produces hormones similar to pregnancy, he said, so things would finally return to normal after breastfeeding. But deep down, San Nicolas, a CrossFit coach, knew herself well enough to know something was really wrong.

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Then What Happened?

Yet, a year passed. She stopped nursing and, as suspected, nothing resolved. Each time she approached her provider with worries and questions, he urged her to wait it out. Her next move was making an appointment with a physician, who also shrugged her off, saying the mom of two just wouldn’t bounce back as easily after multiple C-sections. San Nicolas stressed to her doctors that her deteriorating vision was impacting her ability to drive her car safely, and she was offered an ophthalmologist referral. After a vision exam, San Nicolas remembers the eye specialist saying, “Your vision is 20/20. What do you want me to do for you?” and chalking it up to migraines. She was sent on her way with instructions to work on reducing the stress and anxiety in her life.

Symptoms piled up until the weakness struck her arms and she couldn’t put her hair in a ponytail or hold a coffee. She also couldn’t swallow or force the right side of her face into smile. “It was almost as if I’d had a stroke. But I still waited a couple months to go to the doctor because I was so concerned I would be blown off like I had been the last two years,” she says. “We look to doctors to know everything, and mine tried to slap an explanation of anxiety onto whatever I explained.”

After a deep dive on Google, she finally had an answer: myasthenia gravis. It’s a rare autoimmune disorder in which antibodies attack the communication channels between nerves and muscle, leading to profound weakness that can also affect the eye muscles. Eventually, via an Internet search, she found a neurologist, who validated her symptoms, ran tests, and finally diagnosed her with the disease. Her experience is not uncommon, sadly.…

What Is Medical Gaslighting? 

San Nicolas, now 36, was a victim of something called medical gaslighting. “The term refers to when a health care professional dismisses, invalidates, or belittles a patient’s concerns or symptoms,” says Jennifer Sebring, an MSc candidate and researcher at the University of Manitoba, who also has chronic illnesses and experienced the emotional labour required to prep for appointments knowing that symptoms might be brushed off. Sebring’s recent research article, published in Sociology of Health & Illness, examines the long history of medical gaslighting and lays out how invalidating patient concerns perpetuates health inequities. 

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Why Does Medical Gaslighting Happen?

The medical field hasn’t, overall, been centred on the patient experience – especially when it comes to women, people of colour, and trans and intersex individuals. “Health systems have been developed with the cisgender, straight, able-bodied, white male in mind,” says Sebring. Deviate from that and medicine has a tough time knowing what to do with you when you don’t show up with understandable symptoms that fit a mould. 

“Up until recently, a lot of research was based on white men, and we used that as a gold standard for how to treat disease,” says cardiologist Dr Jennifer Mieres, senior vice president of Northwell Health’s Center for Equity of Care and a patient advocate.

What Happens When You Experience Medical Gaslighting?

When you know your health team isn’t all ears, you start doubting yourself and your doctor. That distrust often leads people to withhold information out of fear of judgment, which can result in “catastrophic consequences,” Dr. Mieres says, like misdiagnosis.

The positive and very recent development: Gaslighting, as a term, is having a viral moment. (See: The BacheloretteThe Real Housewives, and TikTok influencers utilizing #MedicalGaslighting to circulate stories.) So while it’s still happening all the time, we’re at least becoming more attuned to the concept overall. 

The Signs Of Medical Gaslighting

Um, hello?! Five clues you’re not being heard.

  1. Your complaints are dismissed as stress, anxiety, or depression – and your doctor is uninterested in investigating further. 
  2. You feel ignored or not taken seriously, or that they’re pushing their degree or expertise to prove you wrong or less-than. 
  3. Your intuition tells you something is off, even when your doctor tells you it’s all fine. 
  4. You feel talked down to or minimised, instead of engaged in a two-way convo. 
  5. Your provider isn’t willing to run more tests for you – and won’t adequately explain why you don’t need them.

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What Can You Do If Your Suspect Your Doctor Is Gaslighting You?

To be clear, it’s not up to you to transform the medical system. But approaching care like a partnership can help you grasp your individual power, says Dr. Mieres, who offers a game plan for how patients can best interact with doctors in her book Heart Smart for Women.

The most helpful thing you can do:

  1. Prepare for your visit – including by knowing what gaslighting at an appointment looks like (see Spot the Signs,” above).
  2. Bring copious notes too. How, exactly, have you felt over the past six months? How has your lifestyle changed?
  3. Direct the conversation by being as specific as possible, and ask your provider to document everything, including why they won’t run a test, adds Sebring. 
  4. If you ever need to employ a last-ditch tactic, say this: “I know my body. I’d love to brainstorm with you a few options for next steps to solve this, or you can refer me to a specialist to investigate further.” You don’t need to play the role of Good Patient, Dr. Mieres says.

And San Nicolas – who can finally enjoy hiking now that her condition is in remission – reiterates that “we know our bodies more than anyone.” In other words, it’s worth it to find a doctor who will listen. “The only one who suffers by waiting is you,” says San Nicolas. Hear, hear. 

*Words By Jessica Migala

*This article was originally published by Women’s Health US

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