Picture this: you enter a doctor’s office, feeling relieved to have your long standing medical issue resolved. Your doctor sits down and listens to you explain your symptoms. The moment finally comes when your doctor says those long awaited words: “it’s probably just stress.” This scenario is an unfortunate reality for many women. In fact, it has been reported that 65% of American women felt they’ve been ignored or had their concerns dismissed by a doctor. This all too common phenomenon is known as medical gaslighting.

Woman clutching head and expressing frustration while sitting across from a doctor
Photo by VitalikRadko on depositphotos

The term “gaslighting” refers to the psychological manipulation tactic used to make victims feel crazy and instill a sense of self doubt. Medical gaslighting is a subset of gaslighting that takes place when a doctor or medical professional dismisses or minimizes a patient’s pain or experiences. While medical gaslighting can happen to anyone, it’s especially common amongst women. Women are typically diagnosed with diseases later than men, averaging 2.5 years later for cancer diagnoses and 4.5 years later for metabolic diseases like diabetes. Additionally, women struggle obtaining diagnoses for incredibly common disorders, such as endometriosis. Endometriosis is a disorder where uterine tissue grows outside of the uterus and causes severe pelvic pain. Although 1 in 10 women have endometriosis, the average time to diagnosis is 10 years. While many factors may contribute to the gap in women’s diagnoses, persistent dismissal of pain is a prevalent factor.

So, how does medical gaslighting happen and what does it look like? The most common misdiagnoses given to patients are stress, anxiety, and being under or overweight. Studies have found that 57% of people have been told their symptoms are caused by stress/anxiety and 54% of people were told they need to gain or lose weight to alleviate symptoms. Additionally, women are often told their hormone fluctuations are responsible for symptoms. This dismissal of symptoms enables chronic pain and/or disease to remain undiagnosed and untreated. Women are 4x more likely than men to have an autoimmune disorder, which frequently manifests with chronic pain and fatigue. 

Despite the prevalence of medical gaslighting, there are strategies you can use to recognize and conquer it! To recognize medical gaslighting, assess your feelings during and after a healthcare visit. Did you feel heard? Are you left feeling guilt, shame, or like your symptoms were minimized?  To combat these feelings, first have a plan when entering your appointment: prioritize your concerns and center the appointment on them. Additionally, know how to advocate for yourself. This may be seeking a second opinion or seeing a different provider at your practice. Lastly, write down all of your symptoms and keep a log of pain instances and context. By advocating for your own health and educating others about medical gaslighting, this unfortunate practice can be combated to improve women’s health.


Peer Editor: Brittany Shepherd

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