How to overcome the fear of injections

Sometimes it took three nurses to hold me down. This may sound extreme, but it was entirely necessary, as I had a tendency to cry, squirm my way out of my chair and run down the hallway of the pediatric phlebotomy department to escape.

It was the summer between second grade and third grade, and because of complications with the chickenpox virus, I ended up with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, which meant I needed to get my blood drawn weekly. ITP is a blood disorder characterized by low platelet counts and bruising very easily and can look a lot like leukemia. In order to make sure my counts weren’t veering into dangerous territory, I had a standing weekly appointment for a blood test for an entire summer.

I’m not sure who dreaded these appointments more: me or the nurses tasked with collecting my blood samples. As soon as I’d sit in that hard plastic chair with one elongated armrest, I would transform from a sassy but mild-mannered 7-year-old into a creature from a horror film. I had always been scared of needles, but this time, it wasn’t just a vaccine I was getting in the school nurse’s office. I knew the results of this blood test could mean I was sick enough to have to stay in the hospital overnight.

Eventually, I did make it through all my appointments that summer, and my platelet counts returned to normal. As a peace offering, my mother made me draw an “I’m sorry” picture for the nurses at the lab, probably in the hopes that my terrible behavior wouldn’t end up on my permanent medical record.

But it didn’t end there. For years, every time I had to get a shot or have my blood drawn, I’d be nauseated for several days before the injection because of the anxiety. This lasted well into my 20s, and every time the needle would come out in the doctor’s office or lab, I’d try to convince myself that this time will be different and I’ll be fine.

And strangely, one day, it was. But before I get into what ended up finally working for me, here’s what I learned from speaking to two physicians about trypanophobia — a fancy word for the extreme fear of needles.

What causes a fear of needles?

Like many fears, trypanophobia can stem from a variety of experiences or conditions. On a logistical level, a person (like myself) might have very small veins, which can make it difficult for blood to be drawn, sometimes necessitating multiple needle sticks as the clinician attempts to locate a good vein, Dr. Mimi Trinh, a family medicine physician at Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells SheKnows.

But there are plenty of psychological reasons behind having a fear of needles too.

“Needle-phobic people may have had previous painful experiences (learned conditioning) with injections or vicariously through witnessing a family member having had an undesirable experience with needles or injections,” Dr. Trung Tristan Truong, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Medical Group in San Juan Capistrano, California, tells SheKnows. He also notes that it’s possible there may be a hereditary predisposition to the phobia.

Other potential reasons for having a fear of needles can include generalized anxiety or having a sensitive or negative temperament, previous trauma, having fainted or had severe dizziness due to a vasovagal response to shots or blood draws in the past, hypochondria, sensitivity to pain or memories of painful needle sticks and a fear of being restrained, Trinh says.

What can help someone get over a fear of needles?

Like the causes of a needle phobia, the possible ways to help can be both physical and psychological. For example, Trinh says that psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy can all be useful in treating various types of phobia.

“Therapists are trained to help patients develop coping skills towards certain fears and exploring where the fears may be coming from,” Trinh notes. “However, if underlying anxiety could be a factor, then treatment with medications to help reduce anxiety may help as well.”

In more extreme cases, Truong says that some people find taking antianxiety medications helpful as well as nonmedical anxiety-reducing techniques, like deep breathing, reading, listening to music or watching a video. A chest-to-chest hug for a child from a parent or guardian may also be comforting for them, he notes. Children may also fare better if they are offered a reward after receiving their shots or having their blood drawn, Truong adds.

If the physical pain is the root cause of the fear, Truong says that there are numbing creams or gels that may be applied over the injection site prior to the medical visit as well as devices (like the Buzzy) that can transmit cold and vibration sensation to the skin to distract from or divert the actual pain sensation from the needle or injection using the concept of “gate control theory of pain.”

What worked for me?

At some point during my mid to late 20s, my fear of needles kind of just went away on its own without me really realizing it until after I had my blood drawn and was walking home from the doctor’s office. At that stage of my life, my unmedicated anxiety disorder and depression were really kicking into high gear and compared with everything else I was anxious and/or depressed about, a little needle didn’t seem that bad.

I also realized that this pain I was so afraid of was actually quite minimal when compared to other types of pain I experience on a regular basis — primarily menstrual cramps. Those suckers are so excruciating every month that when it came time to getting a shot or blood drawn, I’d go into it bracing for the pain of period cramps, and when that skinny needle made its way into my arm, it felt like a gentle caress in comparison.

Of course, not everyone can be this lucky when it comes to painful periods and anxiety and depression, but in both cases, it was more a matter of me putting this short rendezvous with a needle into perspective. Not only has this made trips to the doctor easier, it has also freed up the time I previously spent making apology drawings for nurses and phlebotomists, so win-win.

Let’s face it: No one loves getting a shot or having their blood drawn, but some people are downright fearful that it sometimes prevents them from getting necessary care. This phobia is called trypanophobia.

Here’s what we know about this phobia and how to overcome it.

How common is trypanophobia?

The data can vary, but it’s estimated that 10% of Americans suffer from a fear of needles, and this includes those who experience vasovagal syncope, a condition that leads to fainting.

Why are we so scared of needles?

The fear is pretty common, but one of the main causes may be simply the fear of the unknown. “When you don’t know about something, it’s not unreasonable to be a bit fearful,” said Kelly Pintarich, a child life specialist at Banner Health in Phoenix, AZ. “I’ve noticed that with patients who have had multiple exposures to needles (such as those with diabetes), they tend to be OK and less fearful because they know what to expect.”

Another common reason to fear needles is due to a misconception about needles themselves. “Some patients, young and old alike, believe that the needle stays in your arm,” Pintarich said. “We remind patients all the time that when we place an IV, draw blood or give a shot, the needle part comes out—it won’t remain in your body.”

And, if you’ve had a negative experience involving needles or medical procedures, you probably aren’t fond of needles either. This can be from witnessing a loved one’s fear of needles or unpleasant memories of your own.

Now that we understand the causes, Pintarich shared some useful strategies to help you overcome your fear.

Techniques to help you overcome your fear (or a loved one’s) of needles

  1. Take deep breaths. When we are anxious or scared, our body tenses and our breath becomes faster and shallower. Take long, slow, deep breaths in through the nose and slowly out through your mouth.
  2. Coach yourself. When irrational fears and negative thoughts enter your brain, remind yourself that any pain associated with shots or blood draws are over pretty quickly. Coach yourself with positive thoughts, like “This isn’t going to be bad. It’ll be over before I know it.”
  3. Distract yourself. Find something that will help keep your mind off what is happening. You can listen to calming music, watch something on your phone, squeeze a stress ball or chat up the person who’s giving you the shot or taking blood.
  4. Simply look away. There’s no reason to watch what’s happening. The person handling the needle will be done quicker than you think.
  5. Let your health care provider know about your fear. When you go to get a shot or blood draw, let the staff know upfront about your fear. This way the staff knows to take extra time ensuring you are comfortable and ready.

Additional tips for parents with children who are fearful of needles:

  • Bring your child’s favorite toy or stuffed animal to hold.
  • Bring an iPad or tablet with their favorite movie or TV show to distract them.
  • Play soft calming music.
  • Use comfort positioning—secure hugging holds that help your child feel safe and secure during a medical procedure.
  • You know your child best, so let the staff know if there are special circumstances where it’s best your child doesn’t know what is about to happen.

What if you just can’t overcome your fear?

Is your fear of needles interfering with your daily life and holding you back from necessary medical care? While the tips above can help, they may not be effective for those with a true phobia. Talk to your health care provider or a behavioral health specialist about treatment options, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy or medications.

“CBT can help you reframe your thinking and build appropriate coping skills,” Pintarich said. “With exposure therapy, your health care provider will gradually increase your exposure to needles, which can lessen the panic they cause. Both are highly effective treatment options.”

The fear of needles and injections is quite common. It may affect you if you are having a blood sample taken, are given a vaccine or are taking some medicines like insulin.

What is injection and needle phobia?

Some people feel extremely anxious just thinking about or seeing needles and injections. This anxiety means you might avoid having blood tests and vaccinations.

Some people with a fear of needles may have bad memories from a previous experience of having blood tests or procedures, but this anxiety can occur even without that memory. Or it may be the sight of blood that makes you feel anxious or upset.

As well as feeling anxious, other symptoms can include changes in your blood pressure, feeling faint, sweating or an increased heart rate.

Tips to overcome your fear of injections and needles

The good news is that there are things you can do to help with feeling anxious. Try these tips to help you manage the next time you need to have a blood test or vaccination by needle, or inject yourself with medicine.

Don’t be ashamed of being scared of injections – you are not alone

Being anxious about injections and needles is very common, affecting at least one in 10 people. It is nothing to be ashamed of.

Tell healthcare providers about your worries

Tell the person coordinating your care, giving you the injection or doing a blood test about your worries. They can answer your questions and help you cope with the procedure, eg, by chatting to distract you. They will not be annoyed or think you are weak. Take your time and ask all the questions you need to. They would like to know your concerns so they can help to make it easier for you.

Remember it won’t hurt that much

Remind yourself that the needle or injection will not be unbearably painful. It will only hurt a little.

Plan ahead to reduce worry

Try to book your appointment for first thing in the morning so you don’t spend the whole day worrying about it.

Learn relaxation techniques

It is useful to know how to get into a relaxed state before going into a situation that makes you feel anxious. This means practising a relaxation technique when you are not in that situation. You may like to try progressive muscular relaxation, breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation. Just choose a method of relaxation that suits you.

Build a support team

If your anxiety is about an injection that you have to give yourself, such as insulin, get some support. Having a caregiver or a member of your whānau give you the injection may be easier, or they can offer support while you inject your medicine yourself. Ask your doctor about training a friend, family/ whānau member or another caregiver to inject your medicine.

Distraction techniques

Distract yourself by focusing on something else. You can try focusing on a fixed point in the room and studying it intensely. Watching a video or reading on your phone can also help.

Applied tension

Applied tension is a simple practice to increase blood pressure back to normal levels to prevent you from fainting. Find information about how to do this exercise.

Remember why you’re doing this

Pause and remind yourself of how this injection will help you.

If you’re anxious about injecting your medicine, remember that even if it makes you uncomfortable for a few moments, treating your condition is important for your health. If you need to have a blood test, remind yourself how important it is to be diagnosed so you can have any treatment you need to stay well. And if you are having a vaccine by injection, remember that you are helping protect yourself and your loved ones.

Click the image below to visit the website, scroll down to see the video, then click play.

How to overcome the fear of injections (Unite against COVID-19, NZ)

Get help

If you think that needle or injection phobia prevents you from getting treatment for your health, ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health provider. Also see oVRcome, a self-help virtual reality (VR) app specifically phobias including needle phobia.

References

    NHS, UK Mental Health Foundation, NZ Anxiety NZ

Resources

Phone Healthline for free on 0800 611 116 any time of the day or night for advice on any health issue, no matter how small.

How to overcome the fear of injections

Most of us will be getting our two COVID-19 vaccinations this year. The NHS states the vaccine is safe and effective and it gives you the best protection against coronavirus. However, for at least 1 in 10 people, having an injection is a scary thought but it doesn’t have to be.

We’ve put together our guide on how to overcome your fear of needles, so you can get your COVID-19 vaccine and/or flu jab this year.

For many a fear of needles, or needle phobia, comes from having had a lot of procedures with needles at a young age. For others it is caused by the thought of a needle entering your skin or the discomfort or pain associated with the procedure.

Signs of fear of needles include:

  • Feeling faint (light-headed or dizzy)
  • Fainting
  • A dry mouth
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Over-breathing
  • Nausea

It is nothing to be ashamed of and there are some simple things that you can do to help overcome it.

How to overcome a fear of needles

Firstly, remember that vaccines are good for you and have proven long-term health benefits:

  • They can save lives: vaccines protect against dangerous, potentially life-threatening infectious diseases
  • They are very safe and effective: each vaccine is rigorously tested before being made available. They continue to be tested after they’ve been introduced to identify any side effects.
  • They protect others you care about: vaccines stop you from becoming ill, which prevents you from passing diseases onto those around you (especially those that may be more susceptible to complications, like young children, the elderly, or those that are already ill).

There are a number of techniques you can try to help overcome your fear.

Before your appointment

Try not to worry before your appointment. Keep yourself busy to prevent anxiety building.

If you are worried about fainting, then practice an applied tension technique which helps your blood pressure get back to normal. Try and do this 3 times a day for up to a week before your appointment:

  • Choose somewhere comfortable to sit.
  • Tense the muscles in your arms, upper body and legs for 15 seconds.
  • Release the tension and sit comfortably again.
  • After 20-30 seconds tense your muscles again.
  • Repeat this 5 times.

If you are worried about feeling panicky (heart rate increases, breathing speeds up, sweating), then try practicing a calming breathing technique. Try and do this 3 times a day for up to a week before your appointment:

  • Sit up straight in a comfortable position and let your shoulders and jaw relax. Put one hand low on your stomach.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathe as deeply as feels comfortable.
  • Do this for five breaths.

You could use a numbing cream like Emla to ease the pain from the needle. This type of cream with temporarily numb the skin and stop pain. Typically, you need to apply 60 minutes before the vaccine as it takes around one hour for Emla to numb the skin.

During your appointment

  • Chat: let the person who is giving you the jab know if you have concerns – there is nothing to be embarrassed about. They can help you to relax and distract you with conversation.
  • Relax: this will release tension in your muscles. Tense muscles may make injections more painful.
  • Breathe: deep, steady breathing can help you relax and give you something to focus on.
  • Distract: don’t look at the needle if it scares you. Bring a book or a magazine or look at favourite photos/videos on your phone.
  • Count: count slowly – this will help to distract you and, chances are, by the time you reach 10 the jab will be over.

After your appointment

  • Reward: give yourself a treat after your jab, why not try a relaxing bath or watching your favourite film?

Remember having a vaccination can help protect you against serious diseases, so it is important to get vaccinated. Having needle phobia is nothing to be ashamed of. Follow the steps above to help you overcome it.