Let’s face it: Life as a human is messy.
While the shiny veneer of Insta and Pinterest make our lives and bodies photo perfect, reality is often less tidy and composed.
From bodily functions to complicated thought patterns, our health and bodies can be awkward, funny and vulnerable. And even though we all experience this messy humanness, social stigmas can make us embarrassed to talk about the mental and physical health issues we face, even with our doctors.
“There are a variety of reasons people feel embarrassed about their health, including societal taboos, stigma, our own sense of who we are and our past experiences when our trust has been broken,” says Dr. Mark Duncan, a psychiatrist who sees patients at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt and UW Neighborhood Northgate Clinic. “This is often most salient for people around personal matters, and our physical and mental health are very personal.”
To help make talking about awkward health topics a little easier, UW Medicine experts share how to cope with that embarrassment, establish trust with your doctor and advocate for your health.
Why is it important to talk to your doctor about awkward symptoms or habits?
“This sounds obvious, but it’s important to say: Unless people tell their doctor about their symptoms or habits that are causing problems, we can’t help them,” Duncan says.
In extreme cases or illnesses, talking to your doctor could mean getting lifesaving treatment. But even in more mild situations, like bowel issues or a leaky bladder, sharing embarrassing symptoms will help you receive care and feel less isolated.
“A doctor’s job is to listen carefully and support the person around their problem,” Duncan says. “Just telling someone else about a particularly embarrassing issue can help reduce the stress of dealing with it alone.”
For Dr. Sarah Halter, a family medicine doctor who sees patients at UW Neighborhood Factoria Clinic, this means that there are no stupid questions when it comes to your health.
Whether you’re concerned about bodily fluids, sex, poop, or other stomach or gastrointestinal issues, she urges you to share this with your doctor.
“Things you think are weird or deficient might be completely normal,” Halter says. “Something you’re worried about might not be an issue at all or there might be an easy fix.”
What can you do to feel more comfortable with your doctor?
Building a relationship with your doctor can take time, but there are small ways you can help yourself feel more comfortable from the onset.
If you’re going to see a new primary care doctor, Halter recommends scheduling your first appointment to address a general issue instead of booking a wellness exam.
This allows you to spend the first appointment getting to know your doctor while addressing a more general topic, instead of jumping into procedures like a Pap test, which are common in wellness exams.
As for deciding on a new mental health therapist, you can talk on the phone before your first appointment to see if that doctor is a good fit for you. Preparing some goals for counseling before an appointment can also help you feel more confident talking about your health.
Another good way to build comfortability and a rapport is to ask questions. The more your talk and learn about your health, the easier it will be to advocate for what you want and work with your doctor to create a treatment plan that is best suited for you.
And if you’re still feeling uncomfortable, try to remember that no matter what you want to discuss, chances are your doctor has heard and dealt with it before.
How do you bring up an embarrassing topic with your doctor?
Just because you intend to talk to your doctor about an embarrassing topic doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.
“It’s normal to feel embarrassed, but it’s also normal for people to tell their doctors about these issues,” Duncan says.
It will be less intimidating to bring up the topic with your doctor if you’ve already said the words out loud, Duncan says.
This will also give you a chance to organize your thoughts and feelings before you share them.
Write it down
If you’re not sure you can vocalize the subject, simply write down what you want to share.
This is helpful in two ways: the prep work will make it easier to share your concerns and, if you are still feeling too anxious to say the information, you can also simply hand the note to your doctor to read.
Start with the easy stuff
If diving into the details of an awkward health topic, especially one you are experiencing, feels overwhelming, you can start broad and then narrow in on specifics.
For example, if you are concerned about irritable bowel syndrome, you may find it easier to start by talking about general symptoms, like discomfort or bloating, versus starting the conversation with the details of your bowel movements.
Rely on resources
The more informed and comfortable you are with your own health, the easier it will be to talk about with your doctor.
Educational resources — including the one you are reading now — can provide some perspective and background. Just be sure you are reading content from reputable sources. (No, Dr. Google does not count.)
It can also be helpful to connect with a support group. While you can’t meet in person during the pandemic, online communities can help validate and normalize what you are experiencing, Duncan notes.
Your doctor is also a great resource for educational materials — and asking your doctor for more information can be a handy way to broach an uncomfortable topic.
At the end of the day, remember that your doctor is a trained professional. They understand the messiness of being human and are here to help.