Have You Experienced Medical Gaslighting?
Written by: Kelly Martin
Updated: July 26, 2022
If a medical provider has ever told you they’ve found nothing wrong with you and your symptoms are all in your head—and then sent you home without help—welcome to the club no one wants to be part of: You’ve experienced medical gaslighting. Medical gaslighting occurs when doctors or care providers actively dismiss a patient’s symptoms and blame their illnesses on psychological factors, which can cause the person to feel unheard and misunderstood.
“So much of medical gaslighting has to do with minimizing the experience of someone’s symptoms because they’re a woman,” says Erica Chidi, cofounder and CEO of the sexual and reproductive health education platform LOOM. Which is why Chidi is so passionate about fighting medical gaslighting head-on: It’s a justice issue.
The true end to medical gaslighting lies in sweeping changes to our health care system and solving the persistent issue of sexism and racism in medicine. In the meantime, the best way to stand up to medical gaslighting—if you find yourself bumping up against it in the doctor’s office—is arming yourself with knowledge about your body and trusting your gut when you know something’s wrong. At LOOM, Chidi equips women and nonbinary people with research-backed health information so they can better understand their bodies, advocate for themselves when their concerns are dismissed, and determine when to leave their provider and look elsewhere.
Most recently, LOOM launched an online Symptom Checker that allows you to explore your symptoms within a bigger-picture context—from hormonal and mental health to stress and trauma. The idea: When people have the language to understand and talk about their bodies, they can more confidently navigate and advocate for their own care.
A Q&A with Erica Chidi
Medical gaslighting is when providers blame a person’s symptoms on psychological problems or deny them entirely. This tells the patient that they’re the problem, not their symptoms. Medical gaslighting mostly happens to marginalized people—women, LGBTQIA folks, and people of color.
This is a matter of social justice. We know that marginalized folks are already at increased risk for a whole variety of health issues because of the impacts of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. Medical gaslighting not only dismisses our medical needs but also causes additional harm to our health.
Your health is continuing to decline. You keep being told to give it some more time, to just get some rest.
Another warning sign: You’re not feeling heard by your doctor, but if you talk about your symptoms with someone else, they’re like, “Wow, that doesn’t sound good.”
If your doctor isn’t taking steps to dig in more on the symptoms you’re struggling with, it might be time to consider getting another care provider.
Keep it simple and direct: “I think it’s time for me to find a new provider. Thank you for your care.”
Resonance. Do you trust this doctor? Do they make you feel safe?
Referrals. Ask friends, family, your social media network, and a trusted doctor for referrals.
Reputation. Does this doctor’s reputation line up with what you want and value?
Research. Even if a doctor comes recommended, do your research. This groundwork ultimately builds trust in the doctor you choose.
To build a medical system that works for everybody, we need to move quickly and strategically toward a human-centered medical model. If we’re really thinking about patients as whole humans, we’re not thinking about just the disease or the symptoms they have. We’re thinking about everything else that influences health, including nutrition, mental health, and trauma history.
We also need more open and available conversations between patients and providers, where they can connect with each other outside the urgency of curing a disease or fixing a problem.
We are still learning so much about trauma within the medical community. There isn’t a consensus on what exactly trauma is. Within strict medical environments, we don’t see much desire to draw correlations between trauma and physical symptoms, despite growing evidence around that link.
It’s one of the reasons I felt strongly about correlating stress and trauma with symptoms. For myself, I know that my childhood trauma has impacted how I experience my body now as an adult. You can’t tell me that my anxiety is not impacting my menstrual cycle or my period experience. For women, it’s important to acknowledge that if you’re really stressed out, it’s not just going to give you acne. Let’s go a couple of layers deeper: What else do we think stress is doing to the body?
We want to invite folks to think about chronic stress and trauma as a source of dialogue with their care provider. Try to see what treatment options are available to them, whether that’s mental health care or something else. When we can acknowledge that stress and trauma can affect how an individual is feeling—and that it’s all research-backed—then the conversation can move forward to “Okay, what else can we do to support you?”
The reason I cofounded LOOM has so much to do with the fact that most women are struggling with a lack of understanding about what’s going on in their own bodies—and they don’t know how to talk with doctors. We’re building our platform to meet women’s educational needs when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. We want to help them feel confident talking about their bodies so that they can be well. We want to be a companion for women in all stages of their lives.
During the pandemic, we launched a pregnancy and postpartum class that focuses on the whole person. It gives women regulation tools for mental health and stress management during pregnancy, but it also teaches them the skills they need to talk with their doctor, get their needs met, and be able to take care of themselves during the pregnancy and the postpartum experience. And most recently, we launched Symptom Checker to help others do the same for a whole range of medical situations.
Symptom Checker is like WebMD but trauma-informed and feelings-centered. It can push back on medical gaslighting by giving people the language to talk about how their symptoms may be connected to their emotions. Here’s our thought process: When you’re about to look up “missed period” or “abnormal bleeding” or “cramps” or “lump in breast,” you are coming from a stressed place. It always struck me that you would go to these diagnostic websites and they’d just be like, “Here’s the information, have a good day,” or whatever. With Symptom Checker, we’re building in notes about the impact of chronic stress and trauma on every single one of the 34 symptoms we’re starting with.
Health education is an underutilized form of health care for women. When you can educate women about what to expect with their bodies and talk about their health, they’re going to be way better off. We haven’t done that at a cultural level, and it’s the driving force behind what we’re doing at LOOM.
Erica Chidi is the cofounder and CEO of LOOM, a digital platform helping women optimize their sexual and reproductive well-being. In her work as a doula, author, and health educator, Chidi helps women understand their bodies and advocate for their health. She is the author of Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood–and Trusting Yourself and Your Body.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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