Overcoming needle fears

Last updated Apr 22, 2021
Does the thought of getting a shot make you want to skip it altogether? Learn how to cope with your anxiety like a pro so you can get the care you need.

Whether it’s for a COVID-19 vaccine or a blood test, getting stuck with a needle is never fun. But for some, the mere idea of a shot in the arm can cause serious anxiety. Symptoms can range from a general sense of unease to a full-blown panic attack.

This isn’t an uncommon problem either. By young adulthood, 20% to 30% of people are still coping with needle fears that often began in childhood. And some 16% of adults skip their yearly flu shot because of it.

Often, needle phobias come with procedural phobias, says psychiatrist Beth Salcedo, MD, medical director of the Ross Center in Washington, D.C. “That can lead to people not getting treatment for very serious conditions. Or they may avoid preventive measures, like immunizations, because they’re so afraid.”

Pain, or fear of pain, is often the main motive behind people’s dread of needles. Perhaps a bad experience with a vaccination in childhood left a bad impression. Whatever the cause, fear can intensify pain, creating a vicious cycle.

People with a needle phobia worry about having panic symptoms such as dizziness and fainting. “It makes a lot of people feel like they’re either going to faint or die. They can also feel like something horrible is going to happen,” Dr. Salcedo says. “It’s not so much just the needle they want to avoid; it’s everything around it.”

Luckily, there are ways to cope. And with COVID-19 vaccines rolling out nationwide, now is the perfect time to conquer your fears. Whether needles cause you minor jitters or high anxiety, these tips can help you get through the process.

Before a shot

With a little planning, you can prepare yourself to have a positive experience.

Practice mindfulness meditation. When you’re worried about something, the tendency is to be hyper-focused on it, says Dr. Salcedo. And that can intensify negative feelings. Mindfulness meditation helps redirect your attention to the here and now — and away from that future shot.

“For someone who has a significant fear of needles, practicing mindful meditation is good for a lot of different reasons,” says Dr. Salcedo. Get started now by downloading a free mindfulness meditation app, such as Headspace or Calm. For mindfulness meditation to be effective, you should practice it on a regular basis.

Tell your healthcare professional. Letting the doctor, nurse, or pharmacist know helps them help you. For example, there may be something they can say to you during the shot to help you calm down. Or maybe you'd prefer they don't speak at all. Whatever it is, give them a heads-up.

During the shot

The shot itself takes only a few seconds, but setting it up might take longer. And that’s when your fears can get the best of you.

Distract yourself. There are lots of ways to keep your mind occupied while you wait. Listen to your favorite music. (Classical can be soothing.) Cue up an engaging podcast or a funny video on your smartphone. Or play mind games: Count backward from 100. Say the alphabet in reverse. Think of a fruit or vegetable that starts with each letter of the alphabet.

Don’t look at the needle. For some, it helps not to know when the needle will go in.

Take deep, slow breaths. “Diaphragmatic breathing can be both anxiety-reducing and help redirect your attention,” says Dr. Salcedo.

Relax your muscles. This can make the shot less noticeable.

After the shot

It’s not uncommon to have mild side effects from vaccinations. Here are some post-procedure recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Move your arm around gently. This can help reduce any pain or swelling in the vaccination arm.

Put a cool, wet washcloth on the injection site. This can help reduce soreness from the shot.

Take a non-aspirin pain reliever. Some vaccines might cause soreness at the injection site, or general muscle aches. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if it’s okay to take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol).

Long-term solutions

If you have a true needle phobia, you might need professional help, says Dr. Salcedo. A trained therapist can create a plan to help you overcome your fear.

“How you think affects how you feel and how you act,” says Dr. Salcedo. That’s why treatment for any serious fear often includes cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy helps you challenge and reset your negative thinking.

CBT typically lasts several weeks. First, you'll learn to spot your negative beliefs. Then you begin relaxation techniques. Finally, your therapist will slowly expose you to your fear. “It’s a structured [process],” Dr. Salcedo explains. “We take the least fearful things and desensitize the anxiety around those. Then you go up the hierarchy as you master each level.”

For needle fear, a CBT challenge might include these steps:

  • Thinking about getting a shot,
  • Listening to someone else talk about getting a shot,
  • Watching someone you know get a shot (or watching a YouTube video of the process),
  • Holding and touching a needle,
  • Giving a shot to an orange, or
  • Practicing giving yourself a shot.

During each of these increasingly stressful challenges, you’ll calm your worry by using the relaxation techniques you learned. In this manner, Dr. Salcedo says, you slowly become less sensitive to the fear of what’s about to happen. You can get your shot with more confidence and move on.

When you’re ready, go ahead and schedule your COVID-19 vaccination.

Sign up on My Turn

Related articles

What we know about long-term COVID-19 right now

Here’s what scientists have learned so far about the most common lingering effects and how to manage them.

Removing barriers to getting a COVID-19 vaccine

We are working hard with the state to make the vaccines available to everyone.

Why older adults shouldn’t wait to get a COVID-19 vaccine

Getting vaccinated will help protect you from getting the virus.

Addressing COVID-19 concerns in Pacific Islander communities

We answer common questions those in Pacific Islander communities may have.

Addressing COVID-19 vaccine concerns in Indigenous peoples of America communities

We answer common questions those in Indigenous peoples of America communities may have.

Your simple guide to COVID-19 testing

Discover the differences between the two types of diagnostic COVID-19 tests and learn which one may be best for you.

Concerned? Get the facts about the COVID-19 vaccines

We have answers to common questions about the vaccines.

Your 5-step plan to stay safe with diabetes

Now’s the time to double down on good blood sugar control. But that’s not your only safety measure.

6 groups of people who are at higher risk for COVID-19

If you’re an older adult or have underlying conditions, it’s hard not to worry about COVID-19. But knowing the details can help you stay healthy.

Addressing COVID-19 vaccine concerns in Asian communities

We answer common questions those in Asian communities may have.

COVID-19 concerns in Black communities

Addressing COVID-19 vaccine concerns in Black communities

We answer common questions those in Black communities may have.

Addressing COVID-19 vaccine concerns in Hispanic/Latino communities

We answer common questions those in Hispanic/Latino communities may have.

What you need to know about COVID-19 vaccines for teens

Some teens 16 and up are eligible to get the vaccine now.

What to know if you have an ongoing health condition

The vaccines are highly recommended for people with chronic illnesses.

6 great reasons to get the COVID-19 shot

Here’s a look at some of the good things that will happen once you’re vaccinated.

How do the 3 new COVID-19 vaccines work?

These shots are the first of their kind, and they’re true medical breakthroughs. Here’s a closer look at the science behind how they were developed.

The high-risk people who need the COVID-19 vaccine most

If you’re living with lung disease, hypertension, or diabetes, getting the coronavirus shot is especially important.

Everything you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccines available now

Learn how the three approved shots stack up and find out why all of them can help keep you safe.

Get to know your treatment options for COVID-19

Learn about the latest treatments available for adults and children with mild, moderate, or severe COVID-19.

What does herd immunity from COVID-19 look like?

Learn how getting vaccinated can help us reach herd immunity safely — and get back to living a normal life faster.

A parent’s guide to the COVID-19 vaccine

What you need to know to help protect your child from COVID-19.

5 important COVID-19 vaccine updates for Asian communities

Here are five updates for those in Asian communities about the COVID-19 vaccine.

5 important COVID-19 vaccine updates for Black communities

Here are five updates for those in Black communities about the COVID-19 vaccine.

5 important COVID-19 vaccine updates for Hispanic/Latino communities

Here are five updates for those in Hispanic/Latino communities about the COVID-19 vaccine.

5 important COVID-19 vaccine updates for Indigenous peoples of America

Here are five updates for those in Indigenous peoples of America about the COVID-19 vaccine.

5 important COVID-19 vaccine updates for Pacific Islander communities

Here are five updates for those in Pacific Islander communities about the COVID-19 vaccine.

What everyone with diabetes should know about the COVID-19 vaccines

How long will you wait for a shot? What are the side effects like? Here’s the essential info you need.

Heart disease and COVID-19: Your 5-step plan to help you stay healthy

Now that the coronavirus has your attention, here’s how to help protect yourself.

Protect your community: Meet Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett

Getting vaccinated can help stop the COVID-19 spread in Black communities, which have infection rates three times that of White communities.

Protect your community: Meet Dr. Erica Pan

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine will help stop the spread in at-risk Asian communities.

Protect your community: Meet Virginia Hedrick

Vaccines are important to protecting the health of California’s at-risk Indigenous peoples of America communities.

Protect your community: Meet Dolores Huerta

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine can help stop the spread of the virus in California’s Hispanic/Latino communities.

Protect your community: Meet Dr. Kawika Liu

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is a crucial step for helping to protect Pacific Islander communities.

Worried about COVID-19 vaccine mandates

We answer your top questions about whether COVID-19 vaccines are (or will be) required, plus how to prove your status.

The future of COVID-19 vaccine research

Here’s what scientists know now about the virus— and what they hope to know soon.