If undergoing pathology tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage here are some general tips on how to make the experience less stressful.
 
Know what to expect

Sometimes, undergoing an unfamiliar pathology procedure can turn out to be a tense and upsetting experience . Emotional distress is more likely when your experience  of a procedure does not match your expectations or  if you have had a bad experience.

Last Review Date: August  1, 2018

Know your tests

The pathology tests you are being asked to have are important in managing your health. Understanding why a test is being performed and how it guides your diagnosis or treatment can help you. Being well prepared helps you feel more relaxed and in control of the situation. Ask your doctor to explain the reasons for your test and how the test will be conducted.  The information you will find under Tests and Conditions/Diseases on this website will also give you useful background information. What to expect when having a blood test and How samples are collected will give you information about what will happen when you have the test.

Communicate your needs

Don't hesitate to let the person know who is taking the sample if you have had a previous bad experience.  For example, if you have felt light-headed or have fainted while having your blood drawn, ask to be allowed to lie down for the procedure. You can expect that the health professionals responsible for collecting the sample have been trained to be sensitive to the needs of apprehensive patients and people with special needs. They will have some proven strategies to help you and are usually keen to work with you for the best outcome.  
 

Relaxation techniques

Here are some techniques to help you relax. Knowing a few simple relaxation techniques can help you avoid tensing your muscles or becoming faint. If you are anxious about lab tests and need them frequently, you will find it helpful to practice these skills at home to make them even more effective when you need them.
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Breathe — Take in three slow breaths, counting one to three for each and breathing through your nose. Push your stomach out as you breathe in (to breathe more deeply). Breathe out through your mouth as you count to six. Slow down the breathing in if you start to feel lightheaded.

Relax your muscles — Consciously relax your muscles. Let them feel loose.

Focus — Find a focal point to look at, or think of a pleasing image.

Count — Count slowly and silently one to ten.

Talk — Chat with someone in the room. The distraction can relax you.


Professional help for anxiety 
If you suffer from extreme anxiety about medical tests you should talk with your doctor. They may be able to recommend someone who can professionally help you especially when your anxiety is severe or prevents you from obtaining treatment.  Your doctor may be able to prescribe medicine to help you relax.
 



 

Tips to help children

Prepare ahead — explain how the sample will be collected and why, giving the child time to adjust to the idea before anyone touches his or her body.

Rehearse— at home or in a comfortable setting, suggest ways to rehearse. Practise having the sample taken or pretend that a toy is the patient.

Put things into perspective — use something the child has mastered or is familiar with to put a time to the part of the procedure the child may find overwhelming. For example, explain that this will be over as fast as you can climb the stairs at home or before you can sing a favourite nursery rhyme.

Plan a reward — let them know you will have a treat ready afterwards.

The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne has produced a series of useful videos to help prepare children for the tests they are having. Go to Be Positive’ on the hospital website. Our video on the front page, 'Abby's Tips' is from this source.
 
Blood tests
Because children's veins are smaller and the amount of blood withdrawn needs to be carefully monitored, children are treated with special care when their blood is taken. An experienced pathology collector is usually involved and they may be helped by an assistant. For children older than two years of age, a vein in the crook of the elbow is the commonly-used site. Here are some tips that can help.

Watch or look away — One of the most basic things you can do, is determine if the child wants to actively participate. Some children want to watch; others would rather look away. If the child does not want to watch, have an alternative focus in mind such as looking at a book or ipad or singing a favourite song or nursery rhyme. You can ask, "Do you want to see how the blood collector does this, or do you want to look at this book with me?"

Practice at home  — Rehearse sitting still and you can say "show me how you stay still, now show me how you wiggle, now show me how you stay still again". Rehearsing can help the child feel composed and in control of his or her body.
 
Prepare for the "Ouch". Explain that it will hurt a bit but it will be over very quickly and then the hurt will go away. Before you enter the room, talk about who you will see  and what they are going to do. It is okay to tell children that having blood taken is difficult even for grown-ups.

Stay with your child —  It is vitally important to stay and help them have their blood taken.

Count to three and blow the feeling away — Blowing the feeling away can be a useful technique because the slow exhale helps keep veins full and loose which makes it easier to for the blood sample to be taken. It helps the child both mentally and physically. Allowing the child to count to three or to choose someone else to do the counting (the parent, nurse or phlebotomist) before the procedure gives the child more control. The child who does the counting is able to ensure he or she is mentally prepared before saying the last number, and the phlebotomist or nurse will be less inclined to insert the needle prematurely.

Don’t expect just a finger-prick — Parents often make the mistake of telling their child that their blood test will require just a finger-prick. The surprise of a different approach can unnerve a child. Most diagnostic tests require a larger sample of blood, which is obtained from a vein not a capillary. You can inquire if a finger-prick option is available, but know which method will be used when you talk to your child so you can provide the most preparation and assurance.
 
Urine specimens
Children sometimes balk at the idea of collecting their urine in a cup, particularly if the idea is new to them. The assistance that may be required can seem like an invasion of their privacy. A child’s resistance can prolong the collection process, making it more stressful for both the child and the parent, so you will want to prepare the child and comfortably guide him or her through the process. The procedure itself is not painful unless there is an infection or rash.

Tips to minimise the stress of the moment.

Anticipate — Inquire when you make the appointment if a urine sample will be required (for example, if you suspect a urinary tract infection). You may also want to know if it must be a sterile specimen. Importantly, ask if you can collect the specimen at home

Rehearse — If you know before your appointnment that a urine sample will be needed (for example if there is a suspected urinary tract infection), spend some time the day before or that morning preparing your child. Ask the child if he or she can do this trick: let a bit of urine out into the toilet, then stop the flow and start again. Tell the child he or she will be asked to do this at the doctor's surgery.

Raise their comfort level — Explain that even grown-ups collect a sample of urine this way when their doctor needs them to. Assure them this is a normal procedure that is not difficult.

Drink up — Encourage the child to drink before the surgery visit as this can help the child to urinate when it is time to collect the sample.

Simplify — Ask what supplies are on hand to make the collection as easy as possible. For a younger girl, putting three to four urine specimen cups in a potty seat may allow you to collect the sample more easily than catching the flow midstream in a single cup. A receptacle placed in the toilet, such as a potty, can be simpler and more familiar for a child than catching urine in a cup.

Cope with pain — If urination is painful because of infection or a rash, there are several strategies you can use. One is to suggest the child "blow the feeling away" by blowing out a breath just as the urine starts to flow. Introducing this idea in advance gives the child time to practise the technique. You can also suggest focusing on another body part, for example, feeling your hand on their forehead or a cool cloth on their leg. Dripping cool water over the irritated area just as urination begins can be soothing and easier for boys (but cannot be used if a sterile specimen is required) .

Turn on the tap — The sound of running water can help the child begin to urinate.

Be cool — For an adolescent who may be embarrassed to carry a urine specimen from the toilet and into the surgery or collection area, you can ask for a bag or other suitable camouflage.

Make it interesting — When the test is for protein in the urine, tell the child the nurse will have to dip a special paper strip into the urine for a colour test.
 
Stool sample
Most older children are 'turned off' by the suggestion that they need to provide a faeces sample for testing, even if they can collect it in the privacy of their own bathroom. Fortunately, stool samples are not routinely required for children.

Except for infants in nappies, where a sample can be collected from a soiled nappy, the procedure is the same as for an adult. The child, however, will probably need an adult to set them at ease about how the sample will be collected and to transfer the sample into a suitable container for transport to the doctor's surgery or diagnostic laboratory.

Tips to make sample collection go smoothly.

Acknowledge embarrassment — Say something like "I know this may be embarrassing for you. It can be embarrassing for a grown-up who has to do it, too, but we need this because..." A statement such as this gives the child permission to express his or her feelings and become more comfortable in accepting the help that is required in this situation.

Simplify — Loosely fitting a sheet of plastic wrap over the toilet bowl but under the toilet seat allows the child to proceed fairly normally with a bowel movement. The child can then call an adult to remove the plastic and the stool. A potty placed under the toilet seat can work in the same way. A younger child can simply use a potty seat with its own collection container. In most cases, you do not need to be concerned about whether or not the sample has been contaminated by urine.
 
Throat cultures

Throat cultures can be intimidating to a child but they do not need to be traumatic. The procedure causes only a moment of discomfort (a gagging reflex) as the swab makes contact with the throat. Explaining the procedure to the child and giving them control and coping methods helps. A child who is fearful and does not trust the doctor, nurse or collector may refuse to open their mouth. This raises the stress levels and anxiety of everyone in the room.

The encounter may be more difficult if the child has had a bad experience previously, for example having a tongue depressor forced into their mouth. To put the child at ease you can show the child a swab, give the child a swab to hold and touch, and explain that the swab will be put into their mouth to collect a sample from the throat and it is just like a big cotton bud.

If you anticipate a difficult time, ask what steps can be taken to avoid a struggle and to create a non-intimidating situation for the child.
 

Tips to help the elderly

What seems like a simple pathology test to the average adult can be significantly more challenging to the elderly.
  • The elderly are more likely to have problems with their vision and hearing, which may make it difficult for them to follow instructions or understand what must happen for the specimen to be properly collected
  • Older people have more problems with balance and mobility, factors that can make some samples physically harder or more dangerous to provide. A person with arthritis, joint stiffness or other mobility problems may find it difficult to obtain a urine or stool sample without some help.
  • Even a blood test can be more difficult because the skin is thinner, the subcutaneous tissue is less resilient, and the veins are more fragile and prone to tearing when punctured. The elderly person may prefer one phlebotomist in particular who they like or who handles them well
  • Even a brief sample collection procedure can be very traumatic for someone with dementia. A person with dementia may be unable to follow the instructions on obtaining an appropriate urine specimen. They may also become confused or agitated when someone tries to do this for them. A person who does not see well or has poor manual dexterity can have trouble using specimen cups, or blood glucose monitors for diabetes.
How to help
  
Instructions — An older person may have trouble hearing verbal directions, reading printed instructions, remembering when a test is scheduled or what it is for. Always ask for written instructions, preferably concise ones in large type. When giving oral instructions, take it one step at a time, and use a calm and reassuring tone.  Before you begin, seek to minimise noise and distractions and create a calm environment.
 
Special equipment — Special equipment for collection can make certain procedures easier and safer. A urine sample may be more easily collected in a receptacle placed in the toilet rather than in a cup or jar that has to be held. A magnifying glass with a bright light attachment can help a diabetic patient with vision loss self-monitor their blood glucose.
 
Hired help — Many testing laboratories have home collection services. If you, as an elderly person, need assistance, ask your doctor what service services are available.
 
Privacy —Helping a person obtain a urine or stool sample can be a task neither party finds particularly pleasant. The person needing the help may be embarrassed, and the person providing the help may find the odours and cleaning tasks offensive. Provide as much privacy as is safely possible to increase everyone’s comfort levels.
 
Getting to the clinic or collection rooms – This can present problems for the elderly, who may not drive and may be dependent on someone else to take them to their medical appointments. Reducing stress on the driver can make for a more positive experience.  If you must go somewhere unfamiliar for a test, get good directions on where it is. Find out how far it is if you must walk. Find out if it will be easier for the person having the test to be dropped off at a particular entrance. You may also want to inquire about busy times and plan to avoid them.
 
Preventing falls – Falls are common yet serious in older people. Pay attention to safety when collecting a urine or stool sample at home, particularly for individuals who have mobility or vision problems. Bathrooms can be particularly hazardous. Your focus on the collection process may prevent you from noticing hazards or unsafe conditions so gather what is needed and plan ahead. Before you begin, remove rugs and loose mats. Be on guard for spills and a slippery or wet floor. Encourage the elderly person to use grab bars or other supports near the toilet area to help prevent injuries from falls.