Ever had a doctor doubt your symptoms? Medical gaslighting is alarmingly common, and in some cases can put your health at risk. Here's what to do when you know your gut instinct is right.
From Gen Z’ers on TikTok to Boomers on CNN, it seems everyone’s been talking about “gaslighting“—particularly as a tactic abusers use in family, work, or romantic relationships.
But with health topics so pervasive over the past few years—and with illnesses like long COVID causing symptoms some patients clearly observe but can’t explain—experts are now urging people to be aware of a new type of gaslighting: Medical gaslighting. It’s an issue that’s easy to miss when you’re in a vulnerable position, inherently looking to a clinical specialist, like your doctor, for answers and just want to know that everything is OK. Of course they’re going to be more informed than you are; after all, they spent years in training…still, nobody knows your body like you do.
A psychologist told us here’s how to know when this increasingly common problem is affecting you.
What is medical gaslighting?
“Gaslighting” in general is when someone says or does things to make you feel “crazy” and doubt your own experiences and reality, substituting theirs instead. It’s done as a way to manipulate or control you.
“Medical gaslighting” is similar: Medical gaslighting is a form of systemic medical abuse where a healthcare provider (such as a doctor, nurse, or therapist) dismisses, trivializes, or undermines a patient’s symptoms, feelings, or concerns about their health. “It is a form of emotional manipulation that can be extremely harmful to patients, particularly those with chronic or rare conditions or ‘invisible’ illnesses,” says Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, FL.
Medical gaslighting can make you doubt your own experiences, symptoms, and feelings, and may even keep you from getting a correct diagnosis and proper medical care…leading to more suffering.
Here’s who is at risk for medical gaslighting
Dr. Rubenstein says, “Medical gaslighting is, unfortunately, relatively common, with many patients, particularly women, people of color, the elderly, and those with disabilities or chronic illnesses.” She continues: “While gaslighting can happen to anyone, these certain groups are at a higher risk due to health racism—systemic biases and prejudices in the healthcare system.”
Signs you’re experiencing medical gaslighting
Dr. Rubenstein says the hallmark sign of medical gaslighting is when your doctor or nurse consistently dismisses your concerns or complaints.
In addition, this psychologist says, there are some common red flags of medical gaslighting to look out for. You might be being gaslit by a medical professional if you are:
- Not allowed to read your own medical records or have information hidden from you
- Blamed for your symptoms or condition
- Discouraged from doing your own research into your conditions
- Dissuaded from getting a second opinion
- Pushed into buying certain supplements or programs from the medical professional
- Led to feel crazy
“A good medical professional should take your concerns seriously and work with you to address your problems, to identify the root cause of your symptoms, validate your feelings, and work with you to find a solution,” Dr. Rubenstein says.
Phrases that may indicate you are being medically gaslit:
Dr. Rubenstein says many gaslighters use similar words or phrases. If you hear any of the following, it’s good time to tune in and be aware of how you’re feeling, and what may be happening:
- “It’s all in your head.”
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “Why are you getting so emotional about this?”
- “It’s not as big of a deal as you are making it.”
- “We never talked about that before.” (When you know you have.)
- “You’re being too sensitive.”
- “You’re not that sick.”
- “I know what’s best for you, better than you do.”
- “Don’t you trust me?”
5 steps to consider if you think you are being medically gaslit
The list above includes possible examples of medical gaslighting, but it’s important to note that those statements are all rather overt. There are times when what a healthcare provider says can be less black-and-white.
If, in any way, a provider suggests you’re less in-touch with your condition than they are, pay attention to what feelings arise for you. Then pay attention to whether other observations you share or questions you ask also seem to be dismissed. In other words…
1. Trust your gut instincts
Many people, particularly those who are sick, are taught to not trust their own bodies and experiences. Dr. Rubenstein says: You are the expert of you.
2. Speak up
Sometimes the confusion is the result of a provider’s poor communication skills, not malicious gaslighting, so make sure that you’re speaking what’s on your mind. “Be clear and assertive in expressing your concerns and ask questions until you fully understand your healthcare options,” Dr. Rubenstein says.
3. Get a second opinion
Good medical professionals will not have their feelings hurt if you want a second opinion, and will even encourage it as even the best doctors have things they miss or don’t know. “A fresh perspective may help you get the care you need,” she says.
4. Keep records
Don’t just rely on the notes in your chart. Keep your own records of your symptoms, appointments, and medical treatments. “This can help you advocate for yourself and ensure you receive the appropriate care,” Dr. Rubenstein says.
5. Change providers
Ultimately, you are the one in control of your treatment and health. If you feel like you’re not getting the care you need, you can switch to a different doctor, clinic, or medical facility.