Facing your fear of needles

Fears developed in childhood often carry over into adulthood. One example of this is a fear of needles.

The fear of needles, or trypanophobia, is surprisingly prevalent, with 25% of adults having a phobia of needles, according to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which develops vaccine recommendations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 7% of adults avoid immunizations due to their fear, said Hayley Ralph, MD, a family medicine physician with OSF Medical Group.

With the widespread rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations, people who fear needles may experience more anxiety when it comes to deciding whether to get the vaccine.

Common phobia

“Most children have a fear of needles. Approximately 20-50% of adolescents have needle fear and about 20-30% in young adults,” Dr. Ralph said. “The fear of needles is more common in females than males and typically decreases as people get older.

“The fear of needles probably developed early as infants with routine childhood vaccinations,” she said. “It has also been suggested there is a genetic predisposition to fear of needles. However, it’s important to remember that it is a completely normal reaction to want to protect your body from pokes and pricks,” she said.

While the COVID-19 vaccines in use have been shown to be safe and effective, it still may be a little scary for people who find themselves sitting in a clinic to get the shot.

Symptoms of trypanophobia

Some symptoms people with this fear may experience include:

  • Feeling faint, passing out at the sight or thought of needles
  • Having an increased heart rate or blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath, dry mouth, tremors and nausea
  • Full-blown panic attack is likely when someone fears they cannot escape the needles

Advice from a doctor

“I tell patients that it is very common and they are not alone. Validating their fears or concerns can be therapeutic and actually helps to calm patients,” Dr. Ralph said. “Next, it is important to help them think of their fear in a positive way. Instead of thinking, ‘I hate needles,’ try to say things like, ‘A needle might hurt for a second, but it’s good for my overall health.’

“Or I tell my patients, ‘I just got my vaccine this year and it was a breeze.’ Sometimes it helps for patients to know you get them, too,” she said.

Facing your anxiety

If you’re extremely fearful of needles, it may help to gradually introduce the thing you fear to your senses.

In the case of immunizations, the needle size is a uniform 22-25 gauge that is 1 inch to 1 ½ inch in length.

“You can try looking up some pictures of needles on the internet. Let your anxiety build up, and don’t stop looking until your anxiety eases up,” Dr. Ralph said. “When you’re done, take a few minutes to relax.

“Then take the next step. Maybe watch someone get an injection with a needle on TV or watch videos on the internet,” she said. “Continue to practice the same technique of letting your anxiety rise and naturally fall.”

Techniques to ease your fear of needles

Dr. Ralph recommends the following strategies:

  • Practice deep breathing techniques. Focus on slowly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, repeat this five times.
  • Imagine yourself in a happy place like on a beach in the warm sun.
  • Lie down and close your eyes while you get your vaccination if you are someone who faints from needles.
  • Communicate your anxiety to the person administering the vaccination, because they can often help distract you and calm you.
  • Try the “applied tension technique” if you are worried about fainting. This helps your blood pressure get back to normal. Try to do this three 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 five times.

Other suggestions

You can also consider applying an over-the-counter numbing cream such as lidocaine cream to your arm about 30 minutes before you’re scheduled to get your shot.

“It can help reduce discomfort and also give you peace of mind,” Dr. Ralph said.

Other ideas:

  • Squeeze a stress ball.
  • Refocus your anxiety and thoughts on something else while getting your vaccination.
  • Give yourself an incentive or a reward. Tell yourself you can only have the reward if you face your fear. Then treat yourself with a coffee, pedicure, treat or whatever motivates you.
  • Play a game on your phone or watch your favorite show.

“It comes down to distracting yourself so that you may not even feel the injection if you are focused on something else,” Dr. Ralph said.

Last Updated: April 13, 2022

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About Author: Lisa Coon

Lisa Coon is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare, where she has worked since August 2016.  A Peoria native, she is a graduate of Bradley University with a degree in journalism. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at several newspapers in Iowa and Illinois.

She lives in Groveland with her husband and son. In her free time she likes to cook, bake and read. She freely admits that reality TV is a weakness, and she lives by the quote, “The beach is good for the soul.”

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Categories: COVID-19, Mental Health