Nobody enjoys smear tests but, for some of us, it’s more than just worrying about whether to shave down there or not. Since having my first smear in my 20s, I have suffered with excruciatingly painful smear tests and I thought I would share my journey with them in this post today to help any of you going through the same thing.
My smear experience
When I went for my very first smear I was very nervous like most of us are. However, the nurse just told me to just relax and a few seconds, I felt agony-searing, burning pain that I’d never felt before. She hadn’t told me what she was doing or even if she’d started and this meant that I was instinctively tensing.
As soon as I felt this pain, I tensed even further until she told me that she couldn’t use the speculum as my muscles in my vagina were so tense they were blocking it from going ‘up’. Many tears later, I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. I was told it was uncomfortable, I was told it might hurt a little but this was the worst pain I’d ever felt. And I hadn’t even managed to get the smear test done after going through it all-so it was for nothing! I started to imagine I had all sorts of medical conditions that made it physically impossible to do a smear.
The nurse told me I just needed to relax so this time I was prescribed a relaxant to take before the smear test. This left me spaced out but my body still automatically tensed: I didn’t need something to make me feel sleepy, I needed to try and retrain my brain (and vagina) to stop tensing and I needed a nurse to help me understand the process rather than just to make me compliant. So, smear number 2 was still not successful either. I was referred to a hospital to see if they could help but the consultant sent me away and told me just to leave it for a few years as my cervical cancer risk was low. At this point, I was extremely frustrated!
As ‘luck’ would have it, as part of my (then undiagnosed) Crohn’s disease, I had to have surgery on an abscess, and a very kind surgeon offered to do the smear at the same time as me being under anesthetic for it as part of a weird 2 for 1 bargain. I think that’s the only ‘2 for 1’ deal the NHS has ever offered but it was helpful of him: it was done, my results were clear and it was left to put to the back of my mind for another 3 years.
Worried about your smear test? Watch my live with hypnotherapist Tanya…
How I overcome my painful and anxiety-inducing smears
I have had three smears since then and thankfully anesthetic has not been required! They’ve slowly gotten much easier. The one I had three years later was still painful but I managed to do the smear: this really helped ‘break the cycle’ into my brain and vagina realising a smear was physically possible for me and there was nothing physically wrong with me.
This improved the point where my last one was pain-free, so I wanted to share the things that have helped me.
The first thing that’s helped me is to actively prepare for my smear tests now. So this starts from the moment you book: speak to your GP and explain you find them difficult-can they recommend somebody who is particularly skilled at smear tests? can you book a longer appointment slot?
Some GPs may let you practice at home with a speculum (but I haven’t done this) and will be very accomodating in helping you get through it. In my case, I was booked with the GP’s smear specialist and was allowed to bring my mum along for moral support which helped hugely (this was even allowed during COVID so don’t be afraid to ask). My tip here is NOT to underplay it, don’t say you’re a little nervous explain that your anxiety is literally preventing you from completing a smear and you need help to do so from them.
It may be helpful to bring earphones if you’re on your own to listen to relaxation tracks or listen to this on the way. Tanya, who I did a live with last week on overcoming anxiety around smears, has a specialist relaxation track for women going through smear tests which you can listen to here.
When you arrive at the smear, talk to the nurse and explain exactly what you’re worried about. In my case, I panicked about feeling out of control and not knowing what was happening or being able to stop. Before she began, I tensed and then untensed my body; forcing myself to untense because often you don’t even realise tense is your default mode.
The nurse reassured me she’d go slowly and tell me what she was doing and give me opportunities to stop whenever I wanted. She constantly talked to me throughout and I was shocked to show a minute later… it was done! I hadn’t felt any pain at all.
The pain I felt in my previous smears WAS real. I wasn’t imagining it and I’m not trying to downplay but my body was creating the pain by tensing and not relaxing so much. If you’re in a similar situation, just acknowledging what your body is doing can really help and working on trying to overcome it. Speak to your GP and see what they can do to support you and know that it is NOT your fault. Smear tests are stressful and uncomfortable but they ARE life-saving so hopefully these tips and my experience will inspire you to book yours in today!