Among hormonally challenged individuals like myself, very similar stories are exchanged. A frequent story is that in which doctors barely listen to a patient’s complaints and reach the very loosey-goosey diagnosis of, “It’s probably just stress.”
It’s true that stress lies behind many many ailments. There’s a clear connection between mental, emotional, and physical states. However, many of us with endometriosis tried all of the yoga, meditation, and every possible lifestyle change without symptom relief. Others quite simply don’t suffer from stress to begin with. When we continue to endure life-altering symptoms and chronic pain,it’s probably not “just stress.”
I wonder if these doctors have forgotten what stress looks like.
Stress is working a demanding job and developing anxiety. Or becoming an insomniac while chasing down unpaid invoices just to cover the rent. Stress is being a single mother, working long hours, and getting the shakes.
Stress is not a period so bad you can’t go to work and end up bedridden for days. It’s definitively not chronic pelvic pain that feels like someone’s stabbing you. Stress is not losing so much blood that you actually pass out.
In 2013, I heard for the first time that my symptoms were probably stress-related. I had begun to experience sharp pains every time I ovulated. My periods were becoming heavier and harder to manage, and my chronic pelvic pain was at an all-time high. I had all of these symptoms, but my doctor, after scanning in search of cysts, turned to me and declared, “It’s probably just stress. You just need to take it easy.”
The second time this happened, I attended a different doctor’s practice and explained I’d been suffering pain during sex. “It’s likely just stress,” they said. “You should probably go on the pill and try yoga or something.”
The idea that women need to relieve stress or calm down reeks of those precious times when women’s health issues were labeled as episodes of hysteria. While no one really throws around this term anymore (thankfully), the sentiment endures.
Many doctors dismiss women as walking emotional messes.
The effects of labeling a health complaint as stress can produce actual stress. A person will develop some form of anxiety, grow wary of health professionals, and likely continue to live their life ignoring the warning signs of a complex illness like endometriosis.
March is Endometriosis Awareness Month. I almost want to walk into every doctor’s office and yell, “It probably isn’t stress, but endometriosis … or adenmyosis or something else! It’s a real, concrete, and very upsetting illness that deprives a woman of a happy, fulfilling life.”
However, I would probably get arrested for doing such a thing. Or perhaps worse still, and in the biggest of ironies, they’d dismiss me as a hysterical woman. All I can do for now is write from my tiny corner on the internet and hope that some of those doctors who resort to stress as a blanket diagnosis begin to think differently.
Each time a doctor dismisses a patient as having “probably just stress,” there’s the very real risk that they’re sending someone home with a chronic disease someone whose illness will worsen over time if the symptoms go unmanaged. A woman who will likely go on to suffer from fertility problems or traumatizing miscarriages because no one thought of investigating further when she first complained.
I’m pretty sure that being dismissive and unsupportive is not what these health professionals signed up for when they applied to study medicine. To those doctors, all I can do is plead: Please listen to women and actually help us reach good health. It’s your one job. It’s all we need from you.