How to overcome your fear of needles


Do you find yourself skipping out on the flu shot because the needle makes you anxious? If so, you may have trypanophobia, or fear of needles. With flu season upon us, now is the perfect time to better understand and try to overcome your anxiety of getting shots.

How common is a fear of needles?

Depending on how data is collected and how the term is defined, the estimates for how many people have needle phobia can vary.

The earliest estimate was that 10% of the population suffered from a fear of needles, and this report included individuals who experience a “vasovagal” response (relating to blood vessels or heart rate), such as fainting.

Gallup surveys suggest that up to 21% of the general population is afraid of needles and getting injections. However, only 3.5% of the population meets the criteria for a needle phobia, which is a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

The blood-injury-injection phobia was recognized as an anxiety disorder in 1994. You may suffer this if you have an excessive, irrational fear to the sight of blood, injury or injection, or even just the anticipation of an injection, injury or exposure to blood.

Why do shots make people anxious?

Children as young as 5 can become fearful of getting shots. This is likely due to the simple fact that injections can hurt.

If adults who are with the child respond a certain way, their response may serve to reinforce that needles are something to be feared. This means that a fear of needles can be passed along from generation to generation. Once developed, this fear can continue for the rest of your life.

One study describes the phobia as arising out of an avoidance of stab wounds or other flesh-piercing wounds, since this would increase one’s chances of survival.

The vasovagal response to needles can cause discomfort or embarrassment and, therefore, anxiety. Roughly 50% of those who experience needle phobia have a vasovagal response. But this fainting, due to a drop in blood pressure, might actually be why someone develops a phobic reaction in the first place.

Tips and tricks to reduce shot anxiety

The best way to overcome any phobia, including a needle phobia, is using a behavioral approach called “exposure.” This intervention is structured so that you’re placed increasingly closer to what you fear.

For example, you can begin by looking at drawings of needles, and then photos. Then try watching videos of injections or blood draws until you can finally work your way up to an actual injection or blood draw. (You’ll likely need the help of a medical professional for this last step to experience an injection or blood draw.)

These exposure exercises are most helpful when they can be done repeatedly.

When should you seek professional help?

This depends on your own needs and the severity of the fear.

If you’re fainting because of your fears, then an intervention that uses muscle tension to keep the blood pressure elevated can be paired with the exposures. A psychologist likely would be needed to help you with this process.

If you have a condition that requires you to give yourself an injection on a daily basis, such as diabetes, it might be worthwhile to consult a professional to deal with this fear more quickly.

Mild shot anxiety for infrequent shots can likely be dealt with on your own, through exposure therapy.

If you need to handle a syringe or experience a shot or needle stick, then you need to see a professional who can accommodate this need.

Cheryl Carmin is the director of clinical psychology training in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Her research efforts are focused on evidence-based treatment of anxiety disorders at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center

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