Feature Archive

Coping With Common Fears

Experts explain how worry, fear, and anxiety can have a variety of medical consequences.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed ByLouiseChang,MD

A lone brown leaf clings desperately onto its knobby branch as a bone-chilling gust dashes into the shadows of a full moon. Ghouls, vampires, werewolves, and other hideous creatures skulk in the dark, haunting homes filled with smothered apples and carved-up pumpkins.

Such is the scene for a frightfully delightful Halloween.

As amusing as this fall fright fest can be, there are real terrors that haunt people all year round. These demons take on the form of normal human emotions, such as worry, fear, and anxiety. Left unchecked, they can run amok, disrupting and sometimes destroying lives.

To find out which fears and anxieties typically plague people, WebMD contacted several health experts. They explained how certain worries can bring about unfavorable health effects and gave advice on how to face the monsters in the closet.

The Demons of Denial

Ever been so uneasy about something, you avoided it altogether? That's what a lot of people do when they're afraid of something, say health experts. It is a natural human reaction that can be a lifesaver.

For instance, if you know that walking down a certain street can be dangerous at night, you might avoid going there and take a safer route. That's when your worry meter and evasion tactics could be valuable.

"Anxiety, per se, isn't a bad thing," says Brian Doyle, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. "Anxiety is bad when it runs your life and keeps you from doing what you want to be doing with your life -- when it gets in the way of living, loving, and playing effectively."

To live effectively, it helps to have good health. One way of ensuring that is to make regular doctor visits. People who avoid going to a doctor because of some anxiety or another could be putting their lives at risk.

One group that has put itself at risk is made up of people who fail to get lifesaving screening tests for breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colon cancer. Over half of people aged 50 and older who are eligible for colon cancer screening have not taken it, says Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.

"Part of the reason is that they may not like the test, or they may be afraid of getting the test and finding something," says Lichtenfeld. "But clearly, in colon cancer, when we find the cancer early or when we find a colon polyp to prevent the cancer in the first place, we can be very successful with our treatment."

Very effective treatment strategies are also available for breast and cervical cancers, particularly if they are found early.

Ogres That Keep the Doctor Away

Christine Laine, MD, MPH, a fellow of the American College of Physicians, cites four reasons why people avoid seeking medical care and offers some advice on how to overcome such reluctance:

  1. People are afraid that something is wrong with them. A person with risky sexual behavior, for example, may avoid a medical visit, fearing the doctor will confirm that his weight loss and fatigue are signs of an HIV infection. "Until a doctor tells them they have something bad, they can pretend they don't have it," says Laine. Ignoring the problem, however, won't make it go away. If a problem is serious, she says it will eventually show itself. Her recommendation is to seek medical care early for a better treatment outcome.
  2. People know they need to get a medical procedure done, but they are afraid of the procedure. Kids who try to avoid getting shots, or adults who shun colonoscopies or mammograms, may fall into this category. Of the fearful, Laine says, "They need to decide whether or not they're more afraid of the [medical procedure] or more afraid of having poor health -- since they didn't get something that could've helped them maintain their health."
  3. Those who don't have health insurance are afraid of paying doctors' bills. According to The Commonwealth Fund, nearly 47 million Americans do not have health insurance, and an estimated 16 million are considered underinsured because they have high out-of-pocket costs relative to their income. "It's a huge problem in this country," says Laine, who says the solution is largely political. To individuals, she recommends trying their best to find free clinics, which are available in some parts of the country.
  4. People are embarrassed to go to the doctor because they haven't done something they know they should. Some people know they need to stop smoking or lose weight. Others are afraid the doctors will find out that they haven't been taking their medications, or they haven't been following a recommended diet. "Realize that you are in good company," says Laine. "There are many patients who don't follow their physician's advice." For the fearful, she suggests a medical visit so you can talk to the doctor about possible strategies to help you do what you need to do. Sometimes, the doctor may be able to propose alternatives that could help you stick with a particular program.