Ask the Doctor

Fear of Being on Medications 

Question: I tried non-pharmacological approaches to help my mood, including therapy and lifestyle changes, without feeling much better. Finally, my therapist suggested that I go on medication for my anxiety and depression. I am nervous about taking medication. By agreeing to take a medication, am I admitting that something is wrong with me? Am I broken and would have to stay on this medicine for the rest of my life? 

Great job on being proactive about your mental well-being and making the choice to invest in your mental health with lifestyle changes and seeking therapy! You are not alone in feeling apprehensive about taking medication. Actually, between 30% to 50% of people do not adhere to prescribed medications. There are many reasons why people do not want to take medications. One of them is pharmacophobia (Yes, everything has a fancy term in medicine), which refers to the fear of medication and a less than the optimal attitude towards medications. 

Why is pharmacophobia (fear of taking pills) a problem?

Untreated mental illness can grow into incapacitating hurdles in a person’s life. The illness usually starts as one small problem. If not addressed early on or adequately, it transforms into a gigantic issue that affects their quality of life, relationships, work, and sense of who they are. 

Let’s Explore Some Potential Root Causes of Fear of Pills:

Possible Traumatic Experience with Medications

Explore your experience with medications. Ask yourself if you watched someone in your life have an adverse reaction when they took medication. What happened to them, and how did that affect you? Or, you may have had a negative experience from taking medications from when you were a child. Were you feeling sick and not well and didn’t like swallowing pills? Did you argue with your parents about taking medication? 

A Perceived Lack of Control: 

Not being in control of the mind or body can be a frightening experience and result in someone not feeling safe in their mind or body. Being in control gives us a sense of safety. It is easy to see why someone would fear medications due to fear of becoming addicted and feeling like they lose control. Another reason for fear of losing control is the fear of side effects that can potentially come with medications. 

What is the antidote to fear of loss of control? Remind yourself that you are the one in control of how you want your healthcare to be. Taking medication is a choice that you make, not something that just “happens to you.” By choosing to direct your healthcare in a manner consistent with your goals, taking medication becomes a choice you make and that you can always change. Remember to make decisions because of your goals and sense of worth, not because of fear. 

Social Stigma and Misinformation Can Lead to Shame: 

You may also want to reflect if you have had an experience where you felt judged or shamed for taking a medication. What did others say to you, or was it the way they looked at you? How old were you, and how did you cope with it? Maybe you heard others talk negatively about someone else being on medication.

Reframe Your Thoughts About Taking Medications: 

If someone has a sinus infection, they take medication to help them get better and suffer less. Taking medication for mental health is no different. The goal is to improve someone’s quality of life and optimize relationships. If, after you tried therapy and lifestyle changes and feel like you haven’t made much progress or felt any alleviation of symptoms, evaluate how you are meeting your goal of wellness, and is it time to consider being on medication? What is your intention behind taking a medication? 

If feelings of shame come up, can you reframe your thoughts so that you are not taking medicine because something is wrong with you? Instead, you choose to take medication because you matter and care about your wellness, and this medicine can help you with that. Can you reframe your thoughts so that you look at taking medicine as a self-care tool, no different than going to the gym, having a yearly dental checkup, and taking care of your body?

Seek A Reliable Information Source and Avoid Misinformation:

Your mind or other people might tell you “That you will be on these medications forever.” However, this is not true. Making a decision based on misinformation, or fear, may likely cause you harm in the long run. Seek a reliable and trusted source of information to help guide you to make the most informed decisions aligned with your wellness and recovery goals.

Build Your Wellness Dream Team and Find a Provider that is Your Ally:  

I can’t stress this enough. It is important that you feel heard and supported when working with your mental health provider.  When you meet with your mental health provider, pay attention if they answer your concerns and not dismiss them. Do they ask you questions and listen to your answers till the end? You may want to create your own checklist of what you are looking for in a mental health provider: Ask yourself if this mental health provider is there to support you and answer your questions as you weigh the risks and benefits of being on medications. Remember that there is no right or wrong answer. The right answer is what meets your needs and goals that you can only decide. 

Remember, the ball is in your court of how you want your healthcare to be and fit your goals and needs.  

By Dr. Nesrin Abu Ata

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