There is often a profound sense of relief when a patient realizes that they are “not the only one.” Whether it be a major life stressor or change, a physical or mental health diagnosis, or anything in between, patients often suffer silently and alone, fearful they will be misunderstood or thought to be different.
In my work as a trauma therapist, my patients often reported a variety of disturbing symptoms and often found it hard to discuss due to shame and confusion. I found one technique — normalizing — to be particularly helpful in easing the conversation and better equipping my patients to manage their health.
Normalizing in the context of treatment is about letting patients know that others have shared similar experiences and that their response or symptoms are not uncommon or wrong. This could mean presenting a clear diagnosis and sensitively reviewing common symptoms, offering education and resources about the condition, and letting a patient know that you are empathetic to their situation based on personal or professional experience.
During these interactions, keep in mind that normalizing is not about minimizing but rather validation and empathy. When a patient opens up, they are allowing themselves to be vulnerable and are often looking for answers. Although we may not have all the answers, acknowledging that your patient’s experience is real and justified can be a powerful intervention and can have a profound impact on the patient-provider relationship. By breaking down barriers and fostering a sense of openness and honesty, patients are more likely to express themselves in a manner that facilitates collaboration.
Spending much of my recent time observing patient visits in the primary care setting has reaffirmed the value of normalizing a patient’s experience and symptoms. One doctor I shadowed was particularly adept at speaking openly with his patients about their physical and emotional symptoms. This doctor skillfully navigated the conversation with his patient, first by educating him about the chronic migraines he was experiencing and then speaking to the emotional impact his illness may have. The doctor reassured his patient by saying, “When someone is in constant pain like this, it can really impact their mood, no matter who they are.”
The patient, who had looked quite serious and reserved, immediately began to smile and nod his head, silently confirming that what he was hearing was in line with his experience. The patient asked questions and shared his daily challenges, which included difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, and irritable mood. I remember the patient saying, “I always thought this was just me, maybe it was my personality or something…but I was never like this before so it didn’t make sense.” By the time the doctor suggested therapy as a treatment option to help alleviate the emotional impact, the patient readily agreed.
Part of being human is the desire to feel like we belong. By normalizing our patients’ experiences we help them understand and therefore better manage both their physical and mental health needs.