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Needle anxiety and proven tips to help

A person's arm with a sticking plaster on the shoulder

You may feel a little sting or prick …. Sure. That’s what they always say, but none of us really likes getting a needle, and we can feel a bit anxious.

For most of us, though, that’s the experience of getting a vaccine or other injection—just a little prick, not really that bad, and the idea is usually worse than the reality.

But some people have a real fear of needles or procedures involving needles—up to 25 per cent of all adults and kids.

If it’s persistent and prolonged, this anxiety can interfere with getting needed medical procedures done. It’s then classed as an actual phobia—belonephobia—that affects up to 10 per cent of people.

What’s a phobia?

Phobias are persistent and extreme fears that are out proportion with the actual threat posed. A phobia may be of an object or situation, with a strong desire to avoid the fear and, in some cases, an inability to function at normal tasks (such as a job or a social situation).

What does that feel like?

“For me, it’s a fight or flight response that happens, regardless of how silly I know it is,” says Kat. "I literally have no control. I mentally prepare myself for the vaccine or blood test, but regardless of that, as soon as it’s about to happen, I hyperventilate in a panic attack, cry hysterically and get paralysis in my hands and legs. After a few minutes, I get embarrassed and angry at myself because I feel silly and end up telling the nurse to go ahead. A few minutes after the jab, the hyperventilation calms down and I’m able to move my hands and legs again."

Next level

And for an even smaller group, their body overreacts to the needle or fear of it and their blood pressure crashes and they may even pass out. It’s no surprise then that they can be gripped with fear and anxiety at the very thought of a needle, the sight or smell of blood, a medical setting, or even by watching someone else get a shot.

Way back they were often treated as if they just need to toughen up and take their medicine, but through science, we now know that these reactions are real, and for some people a large part of their body’s reaction is automatic and uncontrollable.

“I just feel faint,” says Damon. “I have no control over it. When the needle goes in, I’m fine. But about 30 seconds later, I just start flaking out. It takes me about five minutes to recover. Blood tests are worse than vaccinations. It’s okay now that I know what is going to happen and I can warn the nurse or doctor beforehand, so they can let me lie down first so I don’t hurt myself or someone else. I still hate it though. It’s embarrassing, especially when you see a toddler skip out with a lollipop, content as anything, after getting a needle.”

So what’s going on in Damon's body?

Damon may have inherited what's called a vasovagal reflex (he's been diagnosed with it).

When people who have it see a needle or get a shot, this triggers the vagus nerve, which slows their heart rate, widens their blood vessels, and drops their blood pressure. If it falls far and fast enough, they can lose consciousness. The majority of these severely needle-phobic people have been found to have a parent, sibling or child with the same condition.

They are not wusses. They literally have no control over what their body does.

What can you do if needles make you anxious?

You may be wanting to get a COVID-19 or other vaccination or injection but are finding that your needle-related anxiety is making you put it off. Here are some strategies that might help on the day.

Look away

You don’t need to watch what is happening.

Use some meditation or other relaxation techniques

Some people have success with deep-breathing exercises or other forms of meditation, such as visualizing something beautiful and trying to hold it steady in your mind’s eye, or focusing your mind on the in- and out-flow of your breath or the rising and falling of a point in your lower abdomen as you breathe.

Take someone you trust with you

Take a trusted friend or family member who is not scared of needles to get their vaccination with you. Ask them to get theirs first, so you can reassure yourself with their lack of reaction and calmness. You can use self-talk to reassure yourself that you can also do what they just did.

Ask your doctor to numb the spot first

For some people, a bit of anaesthetic cream (lidocaine) or ice numbing the spot on their arm a bit before they get their shot can take away their anxiety about the perceived pain of an injection.

Needle exposure

If your needle anxiety is mild, you may be able to help yourself lessen your anxiety by gradually exposing yourself to pictures or videos of needles and people getting injections, real needles and so on.

Counselling

If your needle-phobia is more serious, you may benefit by talking to a psychologist that can use exposure therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, or other techniques to help lower your anxiety.

What can I do if my needle-phobia is severe, or causes me to faint?

If your needle-phobia is severe and you faint when you see or receive needles, you may benefit from therapy by a professional.

You should also talk to your clinician or vaccination provider before you go for a shot and let them know, so they can help you with your anxiety and keep you safe from falling should you faint.

There is a proven technique—called applied tension—whereby people tense all their muscles before getting a shot, especially arm, abdominal and leg muscles. This raises their blood pressure and helps them to not faint or feel like they are going to. (It may also give you something other than the needle to focus on during the process).

What can you do if your child needs a vaccine or other injection and is anxious or afraid?

We have an excellent Queensland Health blog on the topic that includes a video by a clinician.

Please also have a read of the article Kids and needle-phobia on the Vaccination Matters website.

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Last updated: 20 September 2021