The Mental Torture of Medical Waiting Lists (& How I Learned to Cope)

The Mental Torture of Medical Waiting Lists (& How I Learned to Cope)

Waiting.  Before this past year, I would have described waiting as boring, frustrating, and draining.  Then I spent 12 months in pain, waiting for a specialist appointment, waiting for tests, and waiting for surgery.  After all that, I’m still waiting for an answer and a solution to my symptoms.  Now I would describe waiting as suffocating, crazy-making and excruciating.  Waiting can become a form of mental torture when your health, daily functioning, and quality of life are at the mercy of hospital bureaucrats.

Exactly one year ago this month, I went to my family doctor because of an increase in pelvic pain.  Not only were my periods more painful, but I was experiencing debilitating cramp-like pain more days of the month than not.  My family doctor referred me to my OB-GYN for consultation at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.  I had to wait three months just for an appointment date.  Then, the appointment was rescheduled twice. The office assistant would not call me back, even to give me a rough estimate for when a makeup appointment might be rescheduled.  At one point I even broke down on the phone while leaving a message for the admin assistant. More than anything else, I felt helpless in the face of this mysterious pain that was making my day-to-day life so difficult, with no ability to control the outcome.

Finally, 5 months after the initial referral, I saw the specialist.  We decided a laparoscopy was the best course of action for the diagnosis and treatment of suspected endometriosis.  Her assistant told me to call back in two months in order to book a surgery date.  When I called, she told me to call back in another two months.  I called back and left a message.  No reply.  Two weeks later, another message.  No reply.  During this time my pain had spiked significantly and was now difficult to manage, even with multiple pain medications.

I felt trapped.  If I tried to see a different doctor, it would take months for an initial appointment.  If I tried to even make an appointment with the same doctor, prior to the surgery, it would take months.  The pain was making it difficult to socialize, accomplish day-to-day activities, exercise, or even go on a date with my husband.  I felt angry and anxious.  My mental health was deteriorating.

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I’m not alone in this experience. Researchers have found the waiting period can significantly impact the health of patients.  Studies have consistently found negative effects in patients waiting for test results, ranging from adverse effects on recovery times, wound healing times, reduced immune defenses, and worsening of side effects from medications.  Researchers hypothesize that these effects may be due to anxiety over test results, which is supported by the finding that waiting patients have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Similar impacts have been seen in chronic pain patients waiting for treatment. The study concluded that waiting for longer than six months caused a reduction in quality of life and psychological wellbeing.

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Finally, finally, I got the date for the surgery, two weeks beforehand.  It went smoothly enough.  They found and removed endometriosis lesions.  I struggled through the initial recovery.  One week later, the pelvic pain came back.  Same place, same feeling, same pattern.  Perhaps it is part of recovery, or perhaps the surgery wasn’t the solution.  Now, I have to make another appointment and – you guessed it –wait.

How you react to the stress of waiting for a diagnosis or a test result may be partly determined by your personality characteristics.  One study found that a high need for closure -something I can definitely relate to increases anxiety during the waiting period.  In contrast, if you have a high tolerance for uncertainty, you’re less likely to be anxious.  Do you tend to assume the worst?  This characteristic, which researchers called “defensive pessimism,” also increased waiting for anxiety.  If you tend to assume things will work out (“dispositional optimism”), then you are less likely to experience anxiety. Constantly ruminating on the outcome of the test result during the waiting period also increases anxiety.

Interrupt the Flow of Negative Self-Talk

So what can you do if you have certain characteristics that may increase your stress levels during a waiting period for a diagnosis, procedure, or test result?  Firstly, I learned that it is important to interrupt constantly ruminating on the upcoming medical appointment. Try to be aware of your thought patterns and self-talk during this stressful period.  I try to regularly check in with myself during the day.  If you notice that you are dwelling on the frustration of waiting, acknowledge it.  Then make a deliberate choice to return yourself to the present.  A few minutes of deep breathing or meditation may help to relax you and create space between you and these stressful thoughts.

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Distract Your Mind (or, Your new excuse for binge-watching Netflix)

Distraction is another valuable tool.  Decide to focus on something that will occupy your mind rather than ruminating on a positive test result or unwelcome diagnosis.  This might be a good time to re-watch your favorite comedies, because who doesn’t need a good laugh?

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Challenge Self-Judgement

When I find myself thinking about how long I have to wait for my next doctor’s appointment or my frustration at the lack of answers, I find it really helpful to say to myself “OK, here are those thoughts again”.  I’m trying to be accepting of these thoughts because it’s only natural to be frustrated and stressed in this situation.  But if there’s nothing I can do about it here and now, then I try to refocus my attention on whatever I have going on at the moment.

It’s a daily struggle to cope with the mental torture of the medical waiting list. Negative emotions are natural and experiencing them is not a failure to manage your feelings. That’s a lesson I keep re-learning. I try to see it as a question of what is the most helpful response to the negative emotions, rather than getting frustrated with myself for feeling down in the first place.

Self-Care, Self-Care, Self-Care

It’s very important to practice self-care and stress management during this time.  Activities that have been proven to reduce anxiety include yoga, exercise, meditation, guided visualization, walking in nature, journaling, and deep breathing.  Personally, I find regular meditation really helpful for my mental sanity.  During this time, it’s helpful to refocus on the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle, like trying to get enough sleep, eating nutritious food, and connecting with your social support system.

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