Overcoming a Fear of Needles
Is needle phobia affecting you or your child’s health? Learn more about the symptoms and causes of trypanophobia and the proven techniques you can use to overcome the problem.
What is needle phobia?
Does the thought of a needle going into your skin make your heart race and your stomach churn? Is the anxiety so overwhelming that you avoid doctor visits, vaccines, and other medical procedures altogether? Well, you're not alone. Needle phobia is far more widespread than you may have imagined. A UK-based study found that roughly 25% of adults experience an intense fear of needles or injections. Another study estimated that about 63% of young people aged 6 to 17 had the same type of phobia. The name of this common condition is trypanophobia.
As with other phobias, experiencing trypanophobia isn't a reflection of your character or “toughness.” It can affect people from all walks of life, regardless of age, occupation, or gender. Even some professional athletes have an aversion to needles.
The anxiety that comes with needle phobia is very real and it can negatively affect you or your child’s life in all sorts of ways. You might experience high anxiety or sleeplessness during the days and nights leading up to a medical procedure. Or you might decide to skip out on testing, treatments, or dental procedures that are designed to keep you in good health or improve your quality of life. People with a fear of needles are also more likely to be hesitant about getting vaccinated against viruses such as COVID-19.
If you're the parent of a child with a fear of needles, you may have a hard time preparing them for doctor appointments. And simply telling them that medical shots are beneficial probably won’t help to ease their anxiety. But, whether you're personally struggling with a needle phobia or you have a child afraid of needles, you don’t have to just try to tough it out. There are simple steps you can take to minimize anxiety and regain control of your health and wellness.
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Symptoms of needle phobia
For people of all ages, medical injections are often unpleasant and likely to create some nervousness. So, when dealing with children, it can be especially hard to tell if they have a normal childhood fear of needles or a more intense phobia. You might even have a hard time telling if you have a fear or phobia.
A phobia will cause some degree of physical or psychological impairment and interfere with the person's life. If you're completely avoiding hospitals or vaccine shots out of fear of injections, you likely have a phobia.
If a phobia is severe enough, symptoms might arise when you or your child thinks about needle injections or watches someone else get a shot. Symptoms of a needle phobia can vary from person to person and might include any of the following:
- Chest tightness
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart palpitations
- Insomnia leading up to the shot
- Racing heartbeat
In addition, adults may faint if their blood pressure suddenly drops in response to seeing a needle or blood. This involuntary response is less common in children.
People who are very sensitive to pain or have pre-existing anxiety are at an increased risk for developing a fear of needles. Having family members with needle phobia can also be a risk factor, suggesting there is a genetic component to the condition.
Needle phobia causes
Many people with a phobia of needles are able to trace their fear back to a specific incident that made them feel terrified and powerless. Perhaps a health care provider was too forceful when injecting you as a child, or you were held down to have an injection, or had another unpleasant or traumatic experience in a medical setting. It's also common for a child to develop needle phobia if their parent was overly anxious or distressed while they were receiving an injection.
While a single bad experience at a doctor's office can really set the stage for anxiety-inducing hospital visits later in life, it's also possible that you can't remember when the phobia developed. Maybe it just seems like you've always been terrified of injections, needles, and hospital environments.
Whatever the source of your fear of needles, though, there’s no need to feel embarrassed or feel the need to avoid medical procedures. There’s plenty you can do to overcome your fear.
Self-help tips to overcome a fear of needles
Make a plan. Having a plan in mind can make you feel more in control of the situation. So, consider the different techniques outlined below and use any combination of them to manage your phobia. If your child has a fear of needles, help them come up with a simple techniques they can turn to when their anxiety peaks.
Talk to the provider. Always tell the person administering the shot about you or your child's needle phobia and how you plan to handle it. This phobia is common enough that most healthcare providers will be understanding and do what they can to help.
Schedule injections at quiet times. Whenever possible, schedule injections at times when the clinic is least busy, so the provider is in less of a rush and you’re less likely to have a long wait. Sitting for a long time in a crowded waiting room or witnessing others having an injection will only cause your anxiety to spike.
Overcoming a fear of needles tip 1: Create a fear ladder
Rather than try to avoid needles altogether, an important technique in overcoming your phobia is to face your fears one step at a time. By gradually exposing yourself to needle-related situations in a safe way, you’ll develop more control over your fear and it will start to lose its power in your mind.
To start, create a list of needle-related situations that stir up anxiety for you. The top of the list (the top rung) should be the situation that causes you the most distress. Reserve the very bottom rung for the situation that causes you the least distress. Fill in the middle of the ladder with other needle-related fears, arranged by severity.
Facing a fear of needles: A sample fear ladder
- Fear intensity 5: Receive an injection.
- Fear intensity 4: Touch a needle.
- Fear intensity 3: Watch another person get a shot.
- Fear intensity 2: Listen to someone describe an injection.
- Fear intensity 1: Look at a picture of an injection.
Climb the ladder by addressing one fear at a time, starting with the bottom rung. Move to the next rung when you feel confident in handling the current rung. The more often you expose yourself to each fear intensity, the more confident you’ll become.
The next several strategies can prove helpful in managing your anxiety throughout your climb as well as when you’re having an injection.
Tip 2: Practice breathing exercises
Studies indicate that breathing exercises can reduce pain during vaccinations and help to relax the mind and body. A slow and deep breathing exercise will increase the amount of oxygen in your blood and give your body a signal to relax. Your heart beat will slow down, blood pressure will decrease, and muscle tension will ease.
Experiment with different breathing patterns until you find one that works for you. Most exercises involve a slow, deep inhale that's followed by a slightly longer exhale. For example, inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds. Another possible exercise simply involves inhaling for 7 seconds and exhaling for 11 seconds.
To help introduce children to breathing exercises, you can incorporate a colorful prop like a pinwheel. As a child breathes out, they'll see the pinwheel begin to spin, adding a playful touch to the exercise. You could similarly use feathers or bubbles—anything that responds to slow exhales and entertains your child.
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Tip 3: Try pain-blocking techniques
One of the simplest ways to help you cope with getting an injection is to block out the pain of a shot. You can do this by applying a topical anesthetic (numbing cream) to the area. An over-the-counter cream will do the trick, but be sure to follow the instructions on the package for best results.
Most topical creams should be applied about 30 minutes before the injection. You'll likely need to apply it in multiple spots, since it's hard to know exactly where the needle will make contact with the skin. Also consider reaching out to the provider ahead of time to inquire about any topical anesthetics they have available on-site.
There are also simple devices that can help block pain near the site of the injection, such as the Buzzy Bee or ShotBlocker. The Buzzy Bee uses a combination of vibrations and a removable cold compress to disrupt the pain signals traveling to your brain during a shot. Its cute and colorful design makes it a good option for kids, but it works on adults as well.
The ShotBlocker uses a different method to block pain. When pressed against the skin, rounded nubs on the product create an unusual sensation that is enough to distract the brain from the feeling of an injection. The ShotBlocker has a more discreet design than the Buzzy Bee, so adults may find it more appealing. Both devices simply need to be held in place on the arm during an injection.
Tip 4: Tune out
Using distraction techniques can help you to take your mind off the injection. If you're an adult with needle phobia, you might feel comfortable making small talk with the worker who's administering the shot. Or, if you're a little more introverted, you can simply use your senses to engage with your surroundings. Are there any interesting posters on the wall? Maybe there’s a catchy tune playing in the background or you can listen to a favorite song on your phone.
If your teen or preteen needs a distraction, they could read through text messages or social media posts on their phone. Chatting directly with your teen or encouraging a conversation between them and the provider can also create a useful distraction.
You have even more options when it comes to distracting younger children. Consider telling them or story or singing them a song as they receive an injection. While trying to hold down or otherwise restrain a child will only deeply traumatize them, the right kind of touch from a parent can release “feel-good” hormones that may help minimize the pain. Let your child sit comfortably in your lap, hold their hand, or hug them while they’re receiving the injection.
Tip 5: Address the risk of fainting
Some people can faint before or during an injection, and this brief loss of consciousness can reinforce a phobia. Fainting is due to a drop in blood pressure. It's a vasovagal reaction—an involuntary reflex that is activated by certain triggers, such as the sight of blood or a needle.
If you have a history of fainting during injections, let the health care worker know beforehand. You can also take the following actions:
- Dehydration increases the risk of fainting so stay hydrated by drinking water before the shot.
- Ask if you can lie down with your feet elevated about heart level. If you can't lie down, lift your knees or sit with your legs crossed.
- Repeatedly tense and release your leg muscles and glutes. This quick practice pumps blood through the body and can stop the reflex that causes fainting.
Professional treatment for fear of needles
If you have severe needle phobia, consider seeking out professional treatment options. These options include exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication.
Exposure-therapy can be an effective way to help children and adults overcome needle phobia. A psychologist will assess your phobia, and then construct a series of needle-related exposures for you to face. It might start with you looking at an image of a needle. Once you feel comfortable with this first exposure level, you might move on to watching a video of someone receiving a shot. This is similar to the fear ladder method covered in the self-help strategies, but a professional guides you through each step in a safe environment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you identify and reframe your negative thoughts and perceptions surrounding needles. For example, a therapist might help you challenge overgeneralizations such as “I always faint during shots” and set more realistic expectations.
CBT can also promote pain management by teaching you a variety of practices, including:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Coping statements
- Distraction techniques
If other treatments fail, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help you manage your fear of needles. Potential medications include beta blockers, tranquilizers, and serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). All of these come with possible side effects, so you'll need to talk to a professional to find the right solution for you.
Even if you decide to seek professional treatment, self-help strategies can still help. It’s also important to remember that having needle phobia is nothing to feel ashamed about. You're not the only one trying to overcome a fear of needles. By coming up with a plan of action and taking steps to overcome your fear, you can eventually feel more at ease and in control when getting a shot.
Authors: Sheldon Reid
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Helplines and support
UK: Call Anxiety UK at 03444 775 774.
Canada Find links to services at Anxiety Canada.
Australia: Call the SANE Help Centre at 1800 18 7263.
India: Call Vandervala Foundation at 1860 2662 345 or 1800 2333 330.
Last updated: November 1, 2022