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Healthy Aging

How to Spot and Protect Yourself From Medical Gaslighting

Picture of American Specialty Health
By American Specialty Health on March 6, 2023
How to Spot and Protect Yourself from Medical Gaslighting
Gaslighting, a disempowering form of manipulation, can happen in all kinds of relationships—including the one between you and your health care provider. 

Gaslighting is a topic you see popping up online more and more often these days. But what exactly is gaslighting?

It’s a psychological ploy one person uses to control another. When someone gaslights you, it causes you to doubt your own thoughts, memories, or sense of reality. In extreme cases, gaslighting may even cause you to question your own sanity.

Gaslighting can cause confusion and a loss of confidence in yourself. At the same time, you may start to view the person gaslighting you as the sole source of authority over the facts. Often, the person doing the gaslighting holds a position of power (or strives to) while the victim does not.

When someone gaslights you, they may twist your sense of reality by telling you something “never happened,” or “your mind is playing tricks on you.” Or they may dismiss or downplay your feelings. They may say that you’re being “overly sensitive” or that you’re “too emotional,” and you’re overreacting.

Gaslighting can happen between spouses, family members, friends, or co-workers, or between workers and their boss. But personal and professional relationships aren’t the only place you’ll find it. Gaslighting occurs at the institutional level, too, including in health care.

Medical gaslighting may happen more often than you would think. A doctor or other health worker—often unintentionally—trivializes, dismisses, or simply ignores a patient’s concerns or reported symptoms.

A number of reasons, often quite complicated, may help explain why some health workers engage in medical gaslighting. Research suggests that it happens more often to women , older adults, people of color, people with a mental health condition, and people who are obese. Studies suggest that unconscious biases towards these groups may cause some health workers to take part in medical gaslighting.

For example, if a doctor has an unconscious bias toward obese people, that doctor may blame a patient’s knee pain on a weight problem alone. So, the doctor may choose not to test for other causes. The doctor may simply tell the patient to “lose weight and the joint pain will go away.”

But while being overweight can certainly contribute to joint pain, other treatable causes may be at play, such as a torn tendon or ligament. If so, physical therapy, cortisone shots, or other treatments may help, as well as weight loss.

blog_74_images_0003_GettyImages-1300528458The harm medical gaslighting can cause

Whether intentional or not, medical gaslighting can cause real harm to your health. It may lead to dangerous, sometimes even fatal, outcomes. This may be due to a missed or incorrect diagnosis, or it may lead to a lack of pertinent testing and/or treatment or care.

Besides the danger it may pose to your physical health, medical gaslighting can erode your mental well-being, too. It can cause you to feel embarrassed, ashamed, and frustrated. You may start to lose trust in your health care provider or the health care system in general. You may become afraid or averse to go to the doctor again. Or worse, you may start to distrust your own perceptions and wonder if you are imagining your symptoms or illness.


What are the signs of medical gaslighting?

Here are some common signs that you may be on the receiving end of medical gaslighting:

  • Your doctor says, “It’s just a sign of old age.” Some health care providers unconsciously hold ageist biases. These may lead to medical gaslighting. They may mistakenly dismiss an older patient’s symptoms or a treatable health problem as an inevitable sign of aging. They may deny treatment because they assume older patients won’t respond to it compared to younger patients.

    But poor health is not always due to aging. Many symptoms are indeed caused by health problems, including ones that can be treated, no matter your age. 

    Keep in mind that age-biased gaslighting can go both ways. Some older patients may themselves believe their health problems are simply a sign of growing older, rather than a health problem that can be treated. As a result, they may avoid bringing up such symptoms with their doctor. Or worse, they may skip their yearly exams and screenings. 

    Remember that you don’t have to assume you must live with pain or other symptoms.

  • Your doctor says, “It’s all in your head.” Some doctors may mistakenly assume that a patient’s symptoms are imagined due to heightened emotions, anxiety, or some other mental health issue, including hypochondria. 

    Female patients are often the subject of this kind of gaslighting. Some doctors have a gender bias that assumes some women’s pains or other health complaints are due to “hormones” or “female hysteria.”

Other possible (and more subtle) signs of medical gaslighting

It may be difficult to be certain your doctor is gaslighting you. But pay attention to these signs that might be red flags. Listen to your gut if your doctor:

  • Seems excessively impatient, hurried, and/or rude
  • Seems judgmental or patronizing
  • Is distracted, is not listening to you, or is not making eye contact
  • Does not ask you questions or invite you to describe your symptoms
  • Does not explain or offer possible causes for your symptoms
  • Does not explain or offer diagnostic tests that might help pinpoint the underlying cause of your symptoms
  • Does not offer any treatments or self-care measures for your symptoms
  • Blames your symptoms or illness on you in some way
  • Trivializes or dismisses your symptoms as “nothing to worry about”

Keep in mind these may not be signs of gaslighting—at least not the intentional kind. They may just be signs of an overly busy doctor with too many patients. But even so, if your doctor exhibits any of these signs, you may want to think about finding another doctor.


Steps to protect yourself from medical gaslighting

If you walk out of any health care appointment feeling confused, shut down, frustrated, or unsure of your own perceptions, take these steps to regain your power and sense of agency over your own health:

  • Do your research about the possible causes for your symptoms and ask your doctor questions based on that research. Ask about specific tests that might pinpoint the cause of your symptoms. And ask about any treatments that may help you. Think about bringing a friend or family member with you for moral support and to take notes.

    Remember, you and your doctor are partners in your care. You can and should speak up if you feel a test or treatment isn't right for you or your doctor is brushing off or dismissing your symptoms. It's OK to ask your doctor questions like these:
  • What tests can best pinpoint the cause of my symptoms?
  • How reliable are these tests?
  • What are all my diagnostic and treatment choices?
  • What are the risks versus the benefits of each test and treatment?
  • How might each treatment help change my health or the way I feel?
  • Speak up. You might want to speak proactively with your doctor if you’re feeling gaslighted. Politely and respectfully call them out if you feel they are ignoring or downplaying your symptoms or health concerns. Speak your truth using assertive , but nonconfrontational, language.

  • Stay strong. Don’t buy into the gaslighting. Question any thoughts you’re having that your symptoms are imagined. Remind yourself that, while your doctor is a health care expert, you know your own body better than anyone else. Trust yourself and your own sense of what’s going on with your health. Make a conscious effort to step back into your power and self-confidence. Know that good health care is your right.

  • Find a new doctor. Finding a new doctor can be a challenge. But if you're not happy with your current doctor, or you feel fairly sure they are gaslighting you, making a change is worth it. If you need to make a change in your primary doctor, call your health insurance plan to find out how to go about it. If it’s a specialist, ask your primary doctor to refer you to someone else.

Bottom line: Choose not to let medical gaslighting rob you of your power. Start by standing up for your inner self. Tell yourself you are the best expert when it comes to your health. Then stand up for yourself outwardly by taking the steps described above. 



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This information is not intended to take the place of regular medical care or advice. Please check with your doctor before using this information or beginning any self-care program. Images used for this article do not depict any members of the Silver&Fit Program.


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This article was written by Gail Olson, edited by Jason Nielsen, and clinically reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson, MPH, RDN.


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