Hospitals typically aren’t relaxing places to visit. They’re full of beeping machines, mysterious bags of fluid, and far more needles than many people feel comfortable with. Even if you’re just stopping by to visit someone on the road to recovery, the overall hospital atmosphere can still leave you feeling pretty stressed.
It’s very common to experience some anxiety when visiting the hospital, especially if you’re preparing for surgery or another invasive procedure. If you’re there for a check-up or quick outpatient procedure, you might still have some concerns about possible health issues your doctor might find.
Hospital anxiety isn’t an official mental health diagnosis, but it can make your healthcare visits much less pleasant. Severe anxiety could even lead you to avoid making or keeping important appointments, which can eventually affect your health.
Read on to learn more about hospital anxiety, including key signs, possible causes, and how to navigate it.
You might not always find it easy to recognize hospital anxiety in the moment. You might get so wrapped up in hospital-related distress and worries that you don’t realize it’s anxiety provoking these feelings.
Keep in mind, too, that anxiety can affect your thoughts and emotions in ways you might not expect.
You might notice:
- Irritability. Even if you typically have a lot of patience, anxiety can shorten your fuse. That 20-minute delay in the waiting room can feel offensively long, and you may find yourself acting short with the people around you.
- Procrastination. They’ve just called you back for an MRI scan. You aren’t particularly claustrophobic, but that tube looks awfully narrow. You may try to delay the inevitable by declaring your need for a bathroom break and taking your sweet time washing your hands.
- Trouble communicating. Anxiety can muddle your thinking and make it hard to remember words. It might prove challenging to explain your acid reflux to your doctor when you’ve forgotten the word for esophagus.
- Spiraling thoughts. As you fret about your upcoming treatment, the possibilities in your head may get worse and worse. A worry like “What if the colonoscopy hurts?” can soon become “What if the camera gets lost in my bowels forever?”
Anxiety can also cause physical symptoms. You may:
- feel sweaty and flushed, even though that hospital gown the nurse gave you offers no warmth whatsoever
- find yourself restlessly fidgeting or pacing around the room to blow off steam
- notice tightness or tension in your muscles
- develop a headache or stomach discomfort
Anxiety symptoms in children
Most young children don’t yet have the skills to communicate their anxiety with words. Instead, they often show their feelings about their hospital visit through behaviors such as:
- crying (often loudly or relentlessly)
- pushing or swatting doctor’s hands away
- clinging to you or another caregiver
- hiding behind the door or under the exam table
Hospitals can make people anxious for a number of reasons:
Fear of judgment
It can take a lot of courage to show someone your naked (or mostly naked) body and explain symptoms that feel very personal, perhaps even a little embarrassing.
Your healthcare team has probably encountered every kind of body under the sun, but it can be hard not to feel self-conscious about certain symptoms, like a rash on your rear end. You might also worry they’ll offer some criticism when you explain how you got an injury, or what you think might have caused your symptoms.
In a medical emergency, you may be separated from your loved ones under not-so-relaxing conditions.
Hospitals can leave you feeling stressed and anxious even when you aren’t alone, and 2021 research suggests you may feel even more anxious without your support circle there. You may wonder if they’re still in the hospital and when they can come visit you again.
Loss of control
Sometimes, medical treatment requires you to hand over control of your body. For example, a doctor may need to sedate you before surgery.
While you probably don’t want to remain conscious during the surgery, you still might find it difficult to trust someone else with your life when you won’t know what’s happening.
The healthcare system in the United States is infamous for its high costs. As medical expenses have gone up,
Many Americans have waited in a doctor’s office worrying — not about pain or blood, but about how they’re going to stretch their budget to cover the appointment.
Plenty of people go to the hospital when seriously ill or injured.
Even if you have the gentlest care team in the world, getting hooked up to a ventilator or sedated for surgery can cause lasting trauma. In fact, according to 2013 research, over 1 in 4 people who leave the intensive care unit (ICU) go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you’ve already had one frightening experience at a hospital, you could easily feel anxious when faced with the possibility of another visit.
Reminders of mortality
No one lives forever. You might already recognize this as one of life’s givens, but you still might not like thinking about it.
Of course, getting injured or becoming very ill forces you to admit you aren’t actually invincible. You might then find yourself worrying about what these changes in your health mean for you and whether they’re permanent.
Hospital anxiety involves many of the same symptoms as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). You might:
- cycle through the same loop of worries and fears
- feel light-headed or dizzy
- become restless and get distracted easily
- notice nausea or stomach pain
If you have GAD, though, pretty much any everyday situation can prompt these feelings, so you’ll experience them in many different situations and contexts.
With hospital anxiety, on the other hand, you’ll typically only feel nervous and anxious at the hospital, or when thinking about going to the hospital.
If you have an extreme fear of hospitals, you could have nosocomephobia.
A phobia is a mental health condition that involves excessive feelings of fear. With a phobia, your fear of a specific situation or object falls out of proportion to the actual threat it poses.
While hospital anxiety can cause nervousness, tension, and physical discomfort, nosocomephobia could trigger a panic attack. While panic attacks aren’t dangerous, they can feel very frightening. During a panic attack, you might feel like you’re having a heart attack, choking, or even dying.
A phobia of hospitals could cause such intense fear that you avoid hospitals and clinics entirely — which could have serious health consequences. Delaying medical care might offer temporary emotional relief, but it can lead to much worse health outcomes in the long run.
Nosocomephobia is one of several recognized phobias involving medical care.
Adults and children often experience hospital anxiety differently. The most helpful coping methods can differ slightly, depending on whether you’re trying to soothe yourself or a child.
How to calm yourself
As an adult, you can take steps to reduce your hospital anxiety by:
- Expanding your knowledge. When you understand what’s actually happening to your body, your anxiety has less chance to scare you with worst-case scenarios. Don’t be shy about browsing any information packets or printouts they give you, or asking for more details about your symptoms or condition.
- Breathing slow and deep. If your emotions are tense, there’s a good chance your body is, too. Slowing down your breathing can activate your parasympathetic nervous system and help your body feel calmer and ready to relax.
- Distracting yourself. Admiring a painting or listening to music can keep your mind off your health concerns or worries about treatment. Just take care with the activity you choose. Watching the news on the waiting room TV may stress you out further, so you might try an audiobook or comedy video instead.
How to comfort your child
Young children usually don’t have much experience with the hospital, which can make a visit even more intimidating for them. You can support children by:
- Practicing ahead of time. An older 2008 study had children play at a pretend hospital for teddy bears. After the intervention, the kids rated the hospital as less scary, since they now had a better idea of what to expect.
- Giving them choices. Children may feel less anxious when they feel more in control. Even tiny decisions, like which color bandage they get or which arm they receive a vaccine in, can offer a sense of agency.
- Offering physical touch. A caregiver’s support is often vital for a child to feel safe and secure. You can reassure your child simply by holding their hand, or letting them squeeze yours.
Most people find it possible to work through hospital anxiety by themselves.
That said, if you experience severe anxiety, you may find it helpful to get additional support from a therapist or other mental health professional.
Therapy might have benefit if you:
- dread your hospital visit from the moment you schedule your appointment
- delay medical treatment for health concerns
- have feelings of panic, or panic attacks, when you force yourself to visit the hospital
- can’t stop thinking about a bad hospital experience you had in the past
The main goals of therapy for hospital anxiety or hospital phobia include:
- Practicing relaxation. Perhaps the most common goal involves lowering your anxiety levels directly. A therapist can teach you meditation or mindfulness techniques you can later use at the hospital.
- Adjusting to change. If you’ve developed a chronic or terminal illness, every hospital visit may offer life-changing news. A therapist can help you cope with uncertainty and adjust to new changes in your body.
- Processing trauma. A therapist can help you work through traumatic memories so they become less distressing and intrusive. A therapist can also be a source of validation if your trauma related to medical abuse or mistreatment.
You don’t need to go to a hospital to access mental health care, either. Plenty of mental health professionals work in private offices. Some even offer online therapy, making it easier to address anxiety in an environment where you feel safe.
Hospital anxiety is common, and nothing to feel ashamed of. It’s natural to experience some anxiety at the hospital, especially when you already feel physically or emotionally vulnerable.
If your hospital anxiety becomes severe enough to interfere with your healthcare, reaching out for professional support may be a good next step. A therapist can teach you relaxation techniques to cope with anxiety, plus help identify and treat underlying concerns like PTSD.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.