How to overcome your fear of needles and get the coronavirus vaccine
By Daniel Victor
The New York Times|
Mar 15, 2021 at 1:57 PM
Most people aren’t particularly fond of needles.
But to a significant number of people, the fear of needles goes beyond merely inducing anxiety into a more dangerous area, in which the fear prevents them from seeking out needed medical care.
And as the world’s hopes of returning to a post-pandemic normal rest largely on people’s willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine, experts and health care professionals are assuring those people that there are ways to overcome this fear.
“It would be heartbreaking to me if a fear of needles held someone back from getting this vaccine, because there are things we can do to alleviate that,” said Dr. Nipunie S. Rajapakse, an infectious diseases expert at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
A study from the University of Michigan found that 16% of adults from several countries avoided annual flu vaccinations because of a fear of needles, and 20% avoided tetanus shots.
Mary Rogers, a retired University of Michigan professor and one of the authors of the study, said it was too soon to know if a similar number of people will abstain from the COVID-19 vaccine. But that fear tends to lessen as people age — which is concerning since surges of coronavirus cases have been driven by young people, who are more likely to have the phobia.
Experts say it is a problem that can be overcome, whether the fear is keeping you from getting the vaccine or just causing you distress. Here are the steps they suggest taking.
Seek professional help to conquer the phobia
A therapist can help people with the most severe fears, using some of the techniques that help people conquer other fears that can affect their lives.
“When we really are worried about a fear is when it gets to the point that it is interfering with the person getting appropriate medical care, or is causing the person such distress that yes, they go ahead and get a flu shot or the vaccine, but they’re sick for a month thinking about getting it,” said Dianne Chambless, a retired professor of psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.
With other phobias, professionals will often recommend slowly exposing yourself to the fear, like someone afraid of heights spending gradually more time on a balcony. But that’s harder to do with needles, since shots are infrequent and easily avoided.
Chambless suggested working on your comfort levels by first looking at photos of needles and syringes, then photos of someone getting a shot, and working up to videos. But a therapist can offer a fuller plan.
If you can’t see a therapist, self-help books on overcoming phobias could be a quicker option, she said.
Tell the nurse about your fears before getting the shot
There may be techniques they can use, or products available, to reduce the pain or be more patient, Rajapakse said.
If it would help to have someone with you for support, some vaccination centers may allow it, but you would have to ask ahead of time.
Some people’s fears may be so severe that they’re at risk of fainting. If that’s the case, the nurse may be able to administer the shot with you lying down, or otherwise help reduce the risk, Rajapakse said.
If fainting is a risk and you begin to feel woozy, Chambless suggested tensing your body’s muscles to drive blood pressure to the head.
The whole thing will be over in seconds, and a distraction can help you get through it.
It could be a YouTube video on your phone, or your favorite song playing. You could practice deep-breathing or meditative techniques, or wiggle your toes, or look around and count all of the blue items you can see in the room.
Many people choose not to look directly at the needle. You don’t need to see it.
“Draw your attention away from what is going on,” Rajapakse said.
Focus on the benefits
For some people, the nervous anticipation of the shot is nearly as bad as the pinch itself.
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But in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, there’s a lot to look forward to if the vaccine succeeds in allowing a return to normalcy. Rajapakse said that when she got her first dose, “my personal feeling was one of optimism and excitement rather than feeling nervous about it.”
“Keeping that at the front of your mind can make this a little less of a nervous experience for you,” she said.
The media can do its part by showing fewer images of people looking uncomfortable while a needle goes into their skin, which can aggravate feelings of anxiety, Rajapakse said.
A good countermeasure is all of the positive photos emerging on social media of people holding their vaccination cards, she said. (Just be careful about how much information you’re sharing.) The more selfies, stickers and grateful posts people see, the more likely they are to associate the vaccine with positive feelings, she said.