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Practical ways to overcome a fear of needles so you can get the coronavirus vaccine

Marie Claire Dorking
·8-min read
What to do if you have a fear of needles and are worried about it impacting your ability to have the coronavirus vaccine. (stock, Getty Images)
What to do if you have a fear of needles and are worried about it impacting your ability to have the coronavirus vaccine. (stock, Getty Images)

The coronavirus vaccination programme is picking up speed with the government hoping to have nearly 14 million of the most vulnerable people receiving their first dose by mid-February.

Experts say the vaccine rollout is crucial for helping to halt the spread of the virus and getting back to some sort of normality.

While many are eagerly awaiting their turn to be vaccinated, there are some people who are really concerned about receiving their call to get the jab, and not because of the vaccine itself, but because they’re scared of needles.

Having a fear of needles – trypanophobia – is extremely common, and can have a real effect on your health.

“Needle phobia, or trypanophobia, is a recognised psychiatric condition in which the individual feels an extreme fear of needles,” Dr Deborah Lee, of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, tells Yahoo UK.

“Even just thinking of needles induces anxiety, and can induce a vasovagal reaction, lower blood pressure and result in feeling light-headed, or fainting.”

Read more: How to stay motivated with social distancing as pandemic continues to unfold

Immense anxiety about injections could lead people to delay medical treatment.

“Needle phobia is a serious condition. It stops people from having blood tests, visiting the dentist, giving blood, or having a range of other medical treatments including vaccinations,” adds Dr Lee.

“Needle phobics may also have great difficulty if they are diabetic and need insulin injections.

“Over a lifetime, this fear of needles can adversely effect education, pregnancy, the ability to travel, and can even result in legal issues.”

And, as Dr Lee points out, right now needle phobia presents an especially serious problem because it could prevent a significant number of people from having their COVID vaccine.

Having a phobia of needles could impact whether you have the coronavirus vaccine. (stock, Getty Images)
Having a phobia of needles could impact whether you have the coronavirus vaccine. (stock, Getty Images)

What causes needle phobia?

According to Dr Lee research suggests it is not always immediately obvious what has caused a person’s needle phobia.

“It may be due to traumatic events in childhood, for example, having gone through cancer treatment, or perhaps from living through the treatment of a medical illness of a close friend or family member,” she explains.

“Sometimes, it may be due to genetic or environmental factors.”

People often learn their responses from those around them, and they may have a parent or there may be another person in authority, who also has needle phobia.

“There may be a more extreme pain response from being pricked with a needle, in some more than others, perhaps due to genetic differences in some part of the pain pathway,” Dr Lee adds.

“For those with needle phobia, the very thought of the needle induces painful memories, causing fear and raising levels of anxiety.”

According to Tom Micklewright, associate medical director at Push Doctor, people with a needle phobia will often experience a sudden drop in blood pressure when they encounter a needle, called a vasovagal response.

“This occurs when the emotional stress of a needle encounter inadvertently triggers a network of nerves, called the parasympathetic nervous system, that usually would prepare our bodies for rest,” he explains.

“When our blood pressure drops suddenly, we experience cold sweats, dizziness and may even faint.”

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Micklewright says this only needs to happen a few times before a person then starts to associate needles with feeling unwell.

“In this instance, the anxious thought triggers a different response, the fight or flight response, causing a surge of adrenaline and symptoms of a racing or pounding heart, trembling and fast breathing,” he adds.

How many people suffer from needle phobia in the UK?

Anxiety UK reports needle phobia in 3-10% of UK adults.

Although needle phobia is most common in children, Dr Lee says it often persists into adulthood.

“One 2018 meta-analysis, based on 119 research studies, reported needle phobia to be present in almost all children, 20-50% of adolescents and 20-30% of young people,” she explains.

“The authors also concluded that 16% of adults avoided flu vaccination due to needle phobia. Furthermore, 27% of hospital employees, 18% of workers on long term care institutions and 8% of healthcare workers also avoided flu vaccinations because of needle phobia.”

Even more common though, is a general fear of needles.

“Although not as severe as needle phobia, more than 1 in 5 young adults are thought to have a fear of needles,” Micklewright explains.

Watch: Boris Johnson promises 24/7 vaccines as soon as we can.

How to prepare for the coronavirus vaccine if you have a needle phobia

If you know you are needle phobic and this will prevent you from having the COVD vaccine, Dr Lee suggests speaking to your GP in advance to discuss the issue.

She says the first step is to deal with the anxiety.

“Just thinking about the vaccine, or while you are waiting for your vaccination appointment, your anxiety levels will no doubt start to rise,” she explains.

“Acute anxiety, although it is very unpleasant, will not kill you. It is a natural body response to danger. You need to understand the physiology of anxiety and learn not to be afraid of it.”

According to Dr Lee, anxiety can be controlled, for example, by special breathing called diaphragmatic breathing.

“This activates your parasympathetic nervous system which helps you feel calm and more relaxed,” she explains.

“When you go to your vaccine appointment, if you understand the physiological changes inside you, and can use these breathing techniques, [that] will help you get through the experience,” she adds.

Read more: Why severe coronavirus causes more damage than typical pneumonia

Dr Lee says those with a fear of needles will also need to learn to control their thoughts.

“When you think of the needle, a lot of painful memories, thoughts, fears and emotions may rush in,” she says.

“So be ready to rise above this. One way of doing this to distract yourself, by fixing your gaze on something in the room and thinking hard about that object. Don’t let other thoughts creep in.”

You need to also think positive thoughts such as ‘I can do this’ or ‘I will do this’ so there is no room in your mind for failure.

“Keep praising yourself for having got this far.

“Psychologists say the best way to overcome fear, however hard it is, is to face it. One way of doing this is to break things down into small steps.”

For example, Dr Lee advises following these steps one at a time in this order -

1. Look at a needle

2. Hold a needle in your hand

3. Inject an orange with water

4. Watch someone having an injection on TV

5. Watch another person having an injection

6. Have an injection.

Row Covid-19 or Coronavirus vaccine flasks on white background
Needle phobia is very common. (stock, Getty Images)

What to do before and during your coronavirus vaccination

Micklewright says vaccinators will have plenty of experience in supporting patients with needle phobia, so be honest about how you’re feeling. They will help you through the process.

Self-talk

Be mindful of the language you use in the run up to your vaccination. “Telling yourself that it will be ‘awful’ ‘terrible’ or ‘a nightmare’ will only add to your anxiety,” he says.

Instead, he suggests using less emotionally-charged language, like ‘it will be unpleasant, but over quickly’.

“Remind yourself of when you have had needles before and been fine, and how many millions of people across the world are in the same situation,” he adds.

Exposure

Micklewright suggests drawing a ladder and writing ‘vaccination’ at the top. Below it, write three to five things associated with the vaccination that trigger some anxiety, with the worst things closest to the top.

“You might have ‘thinking about vaccine day’, ‘talking about needles’ or ‘seeing a photo of a needle’,” he says.

“Try to work your way slowly up the ladder, one item at a time. Practice each step repeatedly until you notice much less fear being triggered. Then, move onto the next step of the ladder.”

Distract

Your actual contact with the needle will last one to two seconds. Therefore, it can be helpful to try distraction techniques to stop you worrying about it beforehand.

“You could watch videos on your phone, listen to music, or play a simple game with yourself, like counting how many green things you can see in the room,” Micklewright says.

Accept

If you can feel the physical sensations starting in your body, don’t try to fight them. “They will pass quicker if you can accept and tolerate them,” Micklewright says.

“Explain how you’re feeling to the vaccination team and if you feel faint, ask if you can lie down. Remind yourself the feeling will pass.”

Read more: Pfizer vaccine shows efficacy signs against new coronavirus variants

Relax

Taking slow, deep breaths and consciously relaxing areas of muscle tension, like the neck and shoulders, may help you feel more comfortable as you wait to be vaccinated, Micklewright says.

Applied Tension

If you have fainted before from needle phobia, Micklewright says an applied tension technique can help increase your blood pressure to normal levels to stop this happening again.

“To do this, sit in a chair and tense the muscles of your arms, body and legs for 10-15 seconds. Relax everything and then after 30 seconds, repeat,” he explains.

“This cycle should be done five times and can be practiced a few times a day in the week leading up to your vaccination.”

According to Dr Lee it is perfectly possible to treat needle phobia, and extremely worthwhile.

“Needle phobics miss out on so many interventions in healthcare,” she says.

“Think ahead if you are needle phobic and get help so you do not miss out on the COVID vaccine. There has never been a better time to address your needle phobia. It’s time to get help right now.”

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