It makes sense if the pressure cooker of events that have come to define 2020 have you feeling on edge. Among them include the existential threat of COVID-19, a tense election season, and a societal reckoning with the systemic racism (and its far-reaching implications) that continues to metastasize in this country and beyond. Resulting feelings of depletion, helplessness, burnout, and fear can eat away at our patience, which can in turn affect the way in which we interact with others. One place where these shorter fuses come into play is with health-care workers.
While being the best and strongest advocate for yourself that you can be is crucial in a medical setting, doing so doesn’t need to come at the cost of further burning out overextended health-care workers during these pandemic times. Well+Good previously reported on the upward trend in suicide cases among frontline health-care workers during the pandemic and a study published in JAMA Network Open, which found that 50 percent of health-care workers who worked with COVID-19 patients in China reported symptoms of depression, 44.6 percent reported symptoms of anxiety, and a whopping 71.5 percent reported distress.
So, how do you toe the line between being your best advocate and turning into someone you don’t recognize? For those who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color)—and experience more illness, worse health outcomes, and premature death in addition to reportedly feeling unsupported and unbelieved by white doctors—this issue is especially pronounced. “People in minority groups often have a tougher hill to climb when it comes to being heard,” says Tessa West, PhD, associate professor of psychology at New York University.
Experiencing injustices like these, otherwise feeling unheard, or simply receiving bad news can contribute to stress, which can spill over into interactions with health-care providers including doctors, nurses, physicians assistants, technicians, and aids. “[Stress] can narrow our perceptions, leading to a self-centered myopia and not appreciating how others see the situation,” says Daniel Ames, PhD, a social psychologist and professor at Columbia Business School. “Stress can also hamper our ability to make the best case for ourselves, leading to inflammatory language or nonverbal behavior that then evokes escalation from a counterpart.”
When a situation stirs up agitation or even anger inside you, it is indeed important to assert your feelings and valid concerns, but it’s also possible to do so while considering the frontline worker on the receiving end. Keep reading for expert tips on how to advocate for yourself at the doctor’s, without turning into a jerk. After all, being perceived as angry is connected to being perceived as “irrational” or “emotional” (which has historically been used as a slight against women), and neither of those perceptions translates to being listened to most effectively—in a medical setting or otherwise.
1. Take a step back to let off steam
Writing down what’s happening on a notepad or in the notes section of your phone can serve several purposes, says Tiffany Rowland, LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of Right Choice Therapy in Oak Park, Illinois. It can help you vent frustrations in real time (but privately, not to the health-care worker in front of you) and can also help you remember after the fact what rubbed you the wrong way, so you can revisit the thoughts and decide whether you want to bring up an issue at a subsequent meeting. Texting notes to a friend can also help by way of venting and also saving you from feeling gaslighted by any experience.
You can also request a break from the interaction, says Jenny Wang, PhD, licensed psychologist and creator of the Asians for Mental Health community on Instagram. Do this by informing the health-care worker that you’re feeling triggered and that now isn’t the best time for you to be communicating. Once you feel more centered, start the conversation again. If a formal long pause of this sort isn’t available in your situation, Dr. West suggests taking a more abbreviated time-out; 10 seconds of deep breaths works well for her, she says.
2. Keep an open mind
Dr. Rowland suggests steering clear of placing blame with language like, “You should have done better” or “You didn’t do this.” After all, no one likes being the subject of negative accusations, and Dr. Ames suggests this may be even more true for health-care workers who view themselves as care providers.
A measured way to see this out, especially when you’re feeling triggered by news shared or actions taken by the health-care provider in front of you? Dr. West suggests asking questions instead of making assumptions—and, says Dr. Rowland, to do so without patronizing the health worker.
3. Be mindful of body language, and express your emotions with words
Make eye contact and lean toward the person with your arms uncrossed and brows un-furrowed, says Kathryn Pollak, PhD, a social psychologist and communication coach for physicians. From there, try to explain the source of your feelings to the health worker as best you can.
Furthermore, it is absolutely okay to feel angry. What Dr. Pollak suggests, though, is introspecting to find the source of the anger. People often decide that what they feel is anger because that feeling surfaces first, she says. But asking yourself what might be driving that anger can be illuminating—is it that you feel hurt, dismissed, or sad? A patient disclosing that they are feeling hurt, for example, can provide the health-care worker with information that allows them to provide the best care possible while saving their own mental health. Being mindful of body language and emotional expression can lead to a less defensive, combative conversation—and instead to one that’s more productive and focused on optimum patient care.
4. Don’t be afraid to speak assertively
Because it is possible to be assertive and to advocate for yourself with doctors without being a jerk. To do so, Dr. Wang suggests a three-step plan of communicating what harm has been done, what changes are necessary to remedy it, and asking how they can make that happen. “Do this while being open to understanding the health worker’s perspective as to why they behaved that way, and open to potentially working together to move forward in a positive direction,” she says.
The need to be assertive when necessary does bring in the reality of tone policing, wherein a person’s ideas are dismissed “when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, or otherwise emotionally charged manner,” according to Dictionary.com’s definition. Tone policing is often used as a tool to effectively silence BIPOC, specifically Black women, which is why it is ultimately far more important to prioritize personal health and safety by advocating for yourself, even if there’s a chance the health-care worker you’re speaking with will construe your words as combative.
5. Bring a support system
Dr. West advises bringing someone with you who isn’t as emotionally involved to observe the interactions. “Having close ones around us can reduce that stress a lot,” she says.
If you are unable to bring a friend or family member with you, you could ask for support staff or patient advocacy staff in hospitals, says Dr. Rowland. Their main job is to ensure you, the patient, are heard and receive the best care.
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