I Feel Sexually Violated by a Medical Procedure

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Reader’s Question

I am a male in my early 20s, and get risperidone for Schizophrenia. Because of this medication, my psychiatrist has sometimes ordered me to have a blood test and EKG. The worst thing isn’t the blood test, but the EKG. For some unexplained reason, I feel it is a kind of sexual abuse when someone is touching me or placing things (in this case the EKG-patches) on the left side of my chest, and I get a panic attack.

For some odd reason, since my childhood, that particular area on the chest where most of the EKG-patches are placed, just to the left of the middle of the chest, has been associated with something sexual, even though there is no rational reason for this.

What is the reason for this irrational and absurd association? Why do I feel like I’m about to be sexually violated even when the nurse has assured me that she will not touch me (because I also dislike touch), and will only place the patches on my chest and I should just lay still there for 10 seconds? And what can I do about it?

Psychologist’s Reply

Everyone is sensitive, to some degree, to a violation of their physical space — the invisible boundaries that surround our body. If we imagine that invisible body zone, the zone is smaller with family and friends, allowing them to hug us, kiss us, pat us on the back, etc. Our body zone becomes bigger in the presence of strangers and larger still in threatening environments. In a threatening environment, a person following 20 feet behind me in a dark alley is too close.

As people or medical procedures move closer to touching our body, our anxiety increases as in your case. Each person must then interpret what kind of threat the touch might be — Is it a fear of assault? A fear of a sexual touch/assault? A fear of pain? A fear of embarrassment? Or even just being uncomfortable?

When you describe that you don’t like to be touched, you are reporting a level of sensitivity to touch that is exaggerated — so much so that normal relationships with others would be impaired. This excessive sensitivity to touch would also make routine medical care difficult, as you describe. Medical care is what we call “hands-on” and requires physical contact — either with hands or with medical equipment, also involving the medical professional being very physically close to you, which is often anxiety provoking. While you are describing an uncomfortable medical procedure, it’s not a sexual procedure or a sexual situation. I think you are linking anxiety and embarrassment with sexual feelings.

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When we consider your treatment for Schizophrenia, you should know that sexual issues are often associated with Schizophrenia. Because Schizophrenia is a “thought disorder”, our thoughts become confused, disordered, and often inappropriate. The sensitivities you had as a child may have been complicated by your Schizophrenia, producing feelings about the EKG testing that you realize are irrational and absurd. In such situations, it’s helpful to remind yourself that medical procedures and the physical touch of others are likely to produce some inappropriate ideas or reactions.

What can you do? Your psychiatrist should be informed of your panic reactions to this common medical procedure. Ask to be considered for a short-acting anxiety medication to use before medical procedures or physical examinations, much in the same way that many people use medications before an airplane flight or a visit to the dentist. You can lower your anxiety by rethinking the medical procedure and finding some humor or another viewpoint. You can ask the nurse if the patches come in different colors to make it easier next time. You can also inform the nurse that you are a shy person. I would also read about the use and procedures involved in an EKG. From your description, everyone is trying to make you feel comfortable. Remember that it’s a medical procedure — it’s embarrassing, it’s weird, but it’s not sexual behavior and not sexual abuse.

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