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February 20, 2024

February 1, 2023

When Doctors Medically Gaslight Moms: How to Advocate for Yourself When You Feel Dismissed

E:
158
with
Dr. Sarah Fraser
Family Physician

We have exciting news–Happy as a Mother has evolved into The Momwell Podcast! The podcast is staying the same–same great experts, same mission, same format. But we’re now operating under a new name–Momwell.

What You'll Learn

  • What It Means to “Medically Gaslight”
  • The History of Women Being Medically Gaslit
  • Why Women Are Medically Gaslit
  • Signs You Are Being Medically Gaslit
  • Mental Health, Anxiety, and Medical Gaslighting
  • Why Many Moms Have Distrust in the Medical System
  • Tips for Advocating for Yourself
  • How to Overcome Fear When Talking to Your Doctor

If you’ve ever felt like a medical provider dismissed or minimized your concerns, you are not alone. There is a long history of doctors who medically gaslight women, failing to take them seriously and leaving them questioning their own judgment. 

Today, I’m joined by family physician Dr. Sarah Fraser to discuss the medical gaslighting of moms and what you can do to advocate for yourself. 

“You Just Need to Rest”

I often have clients express frustration, overwhelm, and even fear when it comes to the medical system. Some of them have experienced trauma and developed distrust in doctors. Others have repeatedly had their concerns dismissed or invalidated. 

I myself experienced this when I was battling postpartum depression. A doctor told me that I was just overwhelmed and needed rest. I had to push to be taken seriously. 

When doctors fail to listen to moms, insisting that their symptoms are “all in their head” or “just part of being a mom,” they are taking place in a longstanding system of patriarchal medical structures that keep women on the back burner. 

That’s a big part of why Happy as a Mother has evolved into Momwell—a platform designed to put moms back on the priority list. I have seen too many moms left without care, and it’s time for a change. 

I have seen too many moms left without care, and it’s time for a change.

When I began researching medical gaslighting, I came across Dr. Sarah’s work. I read her paper, The Toxic Power Dynamics of Gaslighting in Medicine, and I was floored. As a doctor, she experienced medical gaslighting from a colleague who made her question her own judgment and expertise. When advocating for a patient, a male specialist implied that Dr. Sarah was wasting his time, scolding her for interrupting him and making her doubt her own competence. This experience led her to begin bringing awareness to the topic. 

I couldn’t wait to discuss medical gaslighting with Dr. Sarah and dive into how moms can advocate for themselves in a system that doesn’t prioritize them. 

What It Means to “Medically Gaslight”

“Gaslight” was the word of the year in 2022. But many people don’t understand exactly what it means. The word comes from the 1944 film Gaslight. In the movie, a man tweaks the gas lamps in his home, then denies that the lights are getting dimmer—as a result of his manipulation, his wife begins to question her own sanity. 

Medical gaslighting occurs when providers dismiss symptoms, making patients question their own judgment or wonder if they are imagining or exaggerating their symptoms. This can happen to everyone, but it is especially prevalent with women and moms. 

When doctors medically gaslight patients, they might stereotype them, minimize their concerns, or even insinuate that they are making their symptoms up. 

Medical gaslighting is real, and it has tangible consequences. This dismissal of symptoms serves as a barrier to treatment—for example, studies have shown that female patients visiting the emergency room with severe stomach pain wait 33% longer than men with the same symptom. 

Women are falling through the cracks due to biases and stereotypes that are still present in medicine today.

The History of Women Being Medically Gaslit

While we might want to think of doctors who medically gaslight women as the problem, the real issue runs deeper than that. Dr. Sarah believes that most of the time, medical gaslighting isn’t intentional—it’s subconscious, fueled by internal biases. 

There is a long history of systemic misogyny in the medical field. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, believed that a woman’s uterus was floating around in the stomach, largely responsible for a wide range of medical problems. 

This belief led to women being diagnosed with “hysteria” as a catchall for a variety of invisible symptoms. Doctors would even recommend removing the ovaries of healthy young women to address the issues. 

While we have made some strides, many of the biases toward women remain. 

While we have made some strides, many of the biases toward women remain. We might not call it “hysteria” or recommend ovary-removal as the first line of defense anymore, but doctors are still more likely to think women are imagining their symptoms or to chalk everything up to hormones. 

It can feel disheartening to think about the history of women being treated this way—especially when we consider that these treatments persisted until relatively recently in history. 

But the more we learn about the ways doctors medically gaslight and the systemic biases toward women, the more we can be empowered to do something about it. 

Why Women Are Medically Gaslit

In addition to the history of medicine being practiced by and focused on men, there are other reasons why women are more likely to suffer from medical gaslighting. 

Dr. Sarah said that part of the problem is that many medical issues are centered around the female reproductive systems, such as endometriosis or PCOS, and are still underresearched and misunderstood. These diseases are often the ones most vulnerable to gaslighting, because they require a lot of time, attention, testing, and investigating. 

Often, the symptoms are written off as anxiety, hormonal issues, or a normal part of a menstrual cycle. 

Many of my clients fear that if they continue to push, they might be viewed as problem patients—45% of women feel that they have been labeled as “complainers.”* Dr. Sarah’s experience validates this concern—when she was in her residency she heard a doctor refer to gynecology as “whiny gyny.” The stereotypes against women are heavily engrained and continue to be perpetuated. 

45% of women feel that they have been labeled as “complainers.”

She also pointed out that doctor burnout plays a role. Post-pandemic, doctors are more burnt out and overwhelmed than ever. When they are in that state of mind, it becomes easier to slip into old biases and overlook symptoms. 

As Dr. Sarah said, it’s a challenge for doctors to listen and do all the investigating that needs to be done, especially when they are short on time and energy. 

Signs You Are Being Medically Gaslit

The hardest part of identifying whether you are being medically gaslit is that the very act leaves us doubting ourselves. We might walk away thinking that we are being dramatic or that our symptoms are just in our heads, despite the reality we are living with. After all, we have been trained to accept and respect doctors as authority figures who know best. 

Dr. Sarah said it’s important to recognize that medical gaslighting is a real thing. Then, pay attention to how you feel while talking with your doctor and after you leave an appointment. 

One key sign that you might be experiencing gaslighting is if you feel like your doctor isn’t listening to you—especially if you have gone in multiple times for the same issue. 

Other indicators might be if you catch yourself thinking, “maybe this is all in my head,” or “maybe I am not actually feeling these symptoms.” 

If you start to question your own judgment or your own reality, you might need to take a closer look at the power dynamics between you and your doctor and consider finding another provider if possible. 

Mental Health, Anxiety, and Medical Gaslighting

Many moms have experienced medical gaslighting, a lack of care for their physical and mental health concerns, or a general dismissal. There is a longstanding bias toward moms, especially those with young children, that they are anxious or hormonal. 

This can even translate into their children’s care as well. Sometimes pediatricians dismiss mom’s concerns as anxious or overly protective. 

Dr. Sarah pointed out that there are real mental health pieces that can be involved in symptoms and medical concerns, but that the answer isn’t to dismiss what moms are saying. Doctors that want to do better should work on listening and communicating. 

The answer isn’t to dismiss what moms are saying.

Not every symptom requires physical testing and interventions. But if a patient is expressing a concern, the doctor should at least take the time to truly explain why it isn’t necessary. 

As a patient, you should leave an appointment with either a game plan for the next steps or treatment, or a true understanding of why no further steps are happening. 

Mental health shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss symptoms. Even if your symptoms are psychosomatic, you should feel relieved after an appointment—not invalidated. 

Why Many Moms Have Distrust in the Medical System

Sometimes for moms, issues with the medical system run deep, stemming from trauma or distressing experiences in pregnancy or birth. This can lead to a strong distrust—which is never a good foundation for medical treatment. 

I once had a mom client who experienced a traumatic birth that led to an infection. She eventually developed chronic pain. But when she sought help, she was dismissed and her experience was minimized. 

The combination of trauma and medical gaslighting takes a toll.

That combination of trauma and medical gaslighting took a toll on her. She began to distrust all doctors—and when she finally found a doctor who validated her, she was floored. Only once a doctor took her seriously did they discover that she had endometriosis and her uterus was fused to her C-section scar. She was suffering for longer than she needed to without treatment, largely due to medical bias. 

This experience of invalidating moms and preventing access to pain relief, treatment, or care is even more prevalent in moms of color. For example, research has shown that moms of color are more likely to report higher pain numbers after birth but are significantly less likely to receive pain medication. 

These biases toward moms, especially moms of color, are real and potentially harmful. 

Tips for Advocating for Yourself

Once you know that medical gaslighting is a real, valid experience, it’s easier to advocate for yourself and prevent it from happening. Dr. Sarah said that you should feel empowered to seek a second opinion when possible if you aren’t comfortable with the answers you are getting. 

Another tip is to come to an appointment with your main concern written down in advance. Sometimes patients will wait so long to be heard that they will bring in a long list of concerns—and while Dr. Sarah said you should bring up everything you need to discuss, it’s helpful to have a top priority to give you and the doctor time to focus on it. 

Sometimes patients will wait so long to be heard that they will bring in a long list of concerns

Dr. Sarah also recommends research. While Google shouldn’t give us a diagnosis, it’s helpful to learn everything you can about what you are going through. 

It can also be helpful to bring a trusted partner with you to your appointment—someone who can help you hear the doctor and be a silent (or vocal if needed) advocate for you. Your partner can also help you feel safe and secure as you discuss your concerns. 

Finally, setting the stage for the appointment by expressing your needs openly can help. When Dr. Quincee Gideon appeared on the podcast to discuss treatment and trauma, she recommended asking the doctor, “Can you be present with me today? I have something that I really need to talk to you about.” 

Dr. Sarah agreed that this is a powerful way to open an appointment. Doctors are only human—they have a long list of to-dos and paperwork and distractions. Opening up the conversation this way, or letting them know that you have experienced trauma or gaslighting before, is a great way to refocus them and remind them of their humanity. 

How to Overcome Fear When Talking to Your Doctor

Visiting the doctor can bring up a lot of fear and concern, especially if you are a new mom experiencing mental health struggles. Depression, anxiety, and scary intrusive thoughts can be difficult to talk about. 

Some moms might worry about the risk of discussing these concerns and being reported. Dr. Sarah pointed out that doctors who are experienced and trained in perinatal care will understand the difference between intrusive thoughts and imminent risk to a child. Thoughts do not reflect desire or intent to act—they are common and not reportable. 

It’s always within your rights to find out more about your doctor’s experience and training. 

If you have these concerns, ask your doctor about their experience with perinatal health and their understanding of intrusive thoughts. It’s always within your rights to find out more about your doctor’s experience and training. 

Navigating maternal health care—both physical and mental—can leave moms feeling overwhelmed and lost. But you deserve to be in the driver’s seat of your own care, and you deserve to be heard, validated, and seen—not dismissed and medically gaslit. 

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you deserve judgment-free care from someone who will listen! Book a FREE 15-minute therapy consult with one of our mom therapists today!

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Tags:

Medical gaslighting, postpartum anxiety

Stage:

Trying to Conceive, Pregnancy, Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Dr. Sarah Fraser
Family Physician

Dr. Sarah Fraser is a General Practitioner practising in Nova Scotia, Canada. She has a varied clinical practice as a medical doctor including working in an office, hospital, and at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre. She is also the author of a book of poetry, Humanity Emergency, which is a collection of poems about the need for humanity in medicine. She is the Co-Director of the Medical Humanities program at Dalhousie University, and is an Associate Editor at the medical journal Canadian Family Physician (CFP). In 2021, she published an article in the journal about the toxic power dynamics of gaslighting in medicine, the topic of today's podcast.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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