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How to Get Over Your Irrational Fear of Needles

The blood! The piercing! The pain! Getting impaled is (almost) no one’s idea of a good time.

Obviously, no one really enjoys getting shots. But some people really, really hate needles, to the point where they suffer from trypanophobia, or a legitimate phobia of injections, blood tests and the like. Often, this goes hand-in-hand with hemophobia (a phobia of blood), for pretty obvious reasons. So if you’re one of the many people feeling nauseous at even the thought of flu shot season, we talked to some people who work around needles all day for tips on coping.

But enough waffle: Let’s get to the point (shit, sorry).

Kevin Chapman, anxiety therapist: Historically, it’s one of those things that humans are predisposed to not only have a fear response to, but a disgust reaction, like snakes. Certain things we have a propensity to be sensitive to, and human blood is one of those things. For some people, it’s just scary to see the needle. For others, it’s about how they’re going to feel in the context of a needle: They’re not going to tolerate the stress that they have in the presence of a needle. And for some people, it’s fearing that they’re going to faint.

The interesting thing about blood phobias is that it’s the one phobia where the fainting response is part of the phobia — where there’s a likelihood that someone can pass out. That’s because it facilitates this precipitous increase in blood pressure when exposed to blood and needles, then this roller coaster that drops blood pressure immediately.

We treat it with cognitive behavioral therapy, or exposure therapy. You work up a hierarchy where you confront situations and change thoughts. For instance, I’ve taken patients to the Red Cross, where they have to observe a phlebotomy. Some clients are even afraid to touch their own veins, so you have to work slowly up to these situations. Finally, you work up to a blood draw yourself.

The main thing about all of these phobias is they’re exceptionally treatable in a relatively short amount of time. We can even do one long, several-hour session for some phobias, or in one case of a patient with blood phobia, it took nine treatments. But we’re talking short-term treatment for a lifelong problem.

Odeh El-Hamarneh, senior supervisor, phlebotomy, UCLA Blood and Platelet Center: Personally, I never felt any fear of needles, but I can empathize with patients who fear needles. Sometimes they’ve had a bad experience, or they think it’s going to be painful. I just try to make the patient feel at ease by distracting them, being confident and listening to their fears and concerns. The most important thing is to be truthful about needles — sometimes it can be painful!

Kara, primary care nurse: For a nurse, giving injections is like riding a bike — you do it once, and you’re comfortable with it. We do get patients who are nervous, but usually they’re good about telling you they’re nervous beforehand — you can walk them through it, calm them down, so they know what to expect. When I give injections I prepare the patient: I count to three, tell them to take a deep breath, and as they take a deep breath, I put it in. They usually say, “Oh wow! I didn’t feel that,” so it’s usually more the fear than it is actually the pinch and pain of the needle. But talking to them is the best way to combat that.

A fun fact is that a lot of patients who are scared of needles and injections have tattoos all over them. I used to work in the ER, and I’m telling you, grown men who needed an IV would say, “I’m scared of needles.” But then they have sleeves of tattoos, and they swear it’s different! I don’t know what it is.

You learn tricks if they’re fearful, squeamish, screaming or crying. We usually have parents hold babies, or we swaddle them and leave out an extremity. Same thing with kids — if you talk to them, they try to be pretty brave. Telling them they get a little candy or a toy at the end is usually enough for them to be brave enough to get the injection, but parents are really helpful, and talk to the patient and hold them so that they don’t move around and hit us.

As a nurse, you have to understand that you may not feel the same way as the patient, but it’s their perception, you can’t change the way they feel about it. I think most nurses know that even if you tell them it’s not gonna hurt, they’re still scared of it. But I don’t know any nurse who thinks a patient shouldn’t be scared of needles.

Tattoo artist, Nite Owl Tattoo, San Diego: Maybe one out of 10 people who come in say they have a fear of needles. It doesn’t prevent them from getting a tattoo, though, and they don’t seem to mind while they’re getting one. Myself, I don’t like the needles at the dentist office — I don’t know why, it feels different. And you don’t end up with a sweet tattoo at the dentist, so it’s not worth it!

I guess with tattoo needles, it’s mind over matter. And anyway, nobody has to get a tattoo — if you’re that worried, don’t get one. But it doesn’t seem to stop people. Not very many people actually find it that painful, it’s more just irritation.