Overcoming needle fears
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).
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.
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